Abuse in our own backyard


British Columbians are continually urged to buy locally grown produce in preference to food shipped over massive distances from overseas. This is a suggestion many do their best to follow.

However, a new and disturbing report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) highlights the murky and invisible side of the Lower Mainland agricultural system that makes such a decision less palatable.

Of course, across the globe, agricultural workers are some of the most exploited and worst protected labourers - there's nothing new in that. Whatever we buy, there's probably a poor, exploited picker and packer behind the scenes.

Apparently, "the Best Place on Earth" is no exception because, thanks to the actions of the B.C. government, the working and safety conditions on many farms are actually deteriorating.

Farm workers in the Lower Mainland are mostly Indo-Canadian. Most are women in their 50s and 60s who speak limited English and have few other job opportunities. They toil extraordinarily long hours doing grueling work, often for piece rates and their work is doled out by farm labour contractors who work directly with the farmers.

According to the CCPA report, these contractors frequently break labour standards, health and safety regulations, and often transport workers in unsafe vehicles - just last year, three women died after the apparently overcrowded van in which they were being transported to a farm, crashed.

Since 2004, a new class of worker has come to B.C. In that year, the provincial government allowed the industry to hire seasonal workers from Mexico. This year, 3,000 Mexicans are expected to toil in our fields. It's not just Mexicans who now have the right to come here and do jobs no one else wants. Workers from the Caribbean islands will soon have the "opportunity" to join them.

These workers come to Canada "tied" to a particular employer - an indenture system similar to the notorious, now amended federal live-in caregiver program, which forced foreign "nannies" to stick with one employer for two years - even if they were treated disgracefully.

Despite this history, in 2001 the B.C. Liberals dismantled the Agriculture Compliance Team, a program that uncovered hundreds of violations of labour and safety regulations on farms. The number of inspections by WorkSafe BC has also plummeted.

The B.C. government also made a raft of changes to employment laws and regulations that made life for farm workers much harder. Hourly paid workers are now excluded from vacation entitlement, statutory holiday or overtime pay. Minimum piece rates for fruit and vegetable pickers were also reduced.

The CCPA report exposes the dirt behind the local food we put on our dinner plates. We must let the B.C. government know that this is a price that we shouldn't have to pay to go local.