Anyone would have thought, as I wrongly did, that the conditions faced by Caribbean workers toiling in Ontario farms have improved greatly since the program was created more than four decades ago.
But, you quickly learn that workers are still being exploited and very little has changed over the years, according to those working on the frontline with migrants.
Besides being lonely at this time of the year without family and friends, some of the seasonal workers are not treated very well by their employers. Many migrants have to toil under less than favourable conditions that can see them earning little overtime pay and being paid less than minimum wage.
And, on top of that, it is troubling that the OPP have conducted a mass DNA sweep of some 100 workers, mostly from Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, who were never even close to a crime scene.
The workers were approached on their farms during October and November by Elgin County OPP officers who requested their DNA samples as part of an investigation of a sexual assault that occurred last October 19 in Bayham, near Leamington, Ont., in which the suspect was described as a ”male Black.”
A complaint has since been filed by community group Justicia for Migrant Workers against the OPP alleging its officers targeted and racially profiled the workers for DNA samples because they were Black.
The OPP denies the allegations stating that it was a ”thorough” investigation and they do not racially profile anyone because it is illegal.
I am sure there would be an uproar with lawsuits flying if the OPP had rounded up 100 White workers for DNA samples. The DNA sweep of the Black workers smacks of a system of two-tier policing.
To allegedly target farm workers, who are new to the country and may not know their rights or even speak English, is quick, easy and takes advantage of the migrants’ rights to earn a living and return home.
How would one react if police officers pull up to their workplace and ask for a DNA sample? The migrants said they were made to feel guilty should they refuse the request. Even more bothersome was that the workers had to sign a document approving the sample collection. And, all of this took place under the watchful eyes of their bosses.
One cannot blame the workers for seeking to have their DNA samples destroyed now that a suspect has been arrested. These samples are normally placed in a computerized database and, like fingerprints, are stored for future use.
Activists like Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia, have been lobbying on behalf of the workers for about 13 years and claims their treatment and living conditions have not improved that much over time.
“Things haven’t improved that much for the workers,” he says. “There are some employers who are good and some who are just plain terrible.”
The rights of these workers may have been trampled if not for these advocates, who note that it is not in the employers’ (farmers’) best interest to rock the boat since they have to live with the OPP long after the migrants return home.
Others, like Sonia Singh, of Campaign to Raise Minimum Wage, insist many of the workers do not receive overtime pay or minimum wages.
“It is terrible what some of these workers have to undergo,” Singh told Share. ”Many are not even paid the minimum wage.”
Toronto human rights lawyer Munyonzwe Hamalengwa said the double standard in policing has been in existence for a long time.
“Some of these workers are exploited beyond means,” Hamalengwa said. “The employers know the workers are only here for a number of months and they are gone.”
Hamalengwa last month filed two class-action lawsuits on behalf of the community against the police alleging racial profiling and carding of Blacks.
One suit was filed against Toronto Police and its board, seeking $65 million in damages and the other seeking $125 million was filed against Peel Regional Police, former Chief Mike Metcalf and several officers who have been accused of targeting Blacks.
The forces in a response to the suits have sought an extension of time to review documents filed.
The controversial practice of racial profiling and carding of Blacks occurs when the information collected from interactions between police and members of the Black community are kept on file for police investigations.
Some 19,000 migrants from the Caribbean, Mexico and South America arrive in Canada to work annually on Ontario farms. The farm worker program was created in 1966 when 263 workers from Jamaica were brought to work in Ontario apple farms due to a shortage of pickers.