Brock University: Tacitly Supporting Migrant Worker Discrimination
Brock University has long been an important stakeholder in Niagara’s wine industry. Our connection is obvious from the very first week we enter the university as undergraduate students, with the annual Brock ‘Grape Stomp’. The university prides itself on this 15 year old tradition, which has been voted one of the top O-Week traditions across Canada. We bring in more than two thousand pounds of ‘locally-sourced’ grapes for this event to kick off the school year and the annual Niagara Wine Festival, which celebrates and honours our ‘local’ wine industry.
Brock is also home to the Oenology and Viticulture (CCOVI) bachelors and certificate programs which launched in 1996 through direct industry partnership (with the Grape Growers of Ontario, the Wine Council of Ontario, and the Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario). The program outlines its objectives as:
1. “To strengthen the growth, profitability and sustainability of the grape and wine industry throughout Canada through research on industry needs.”
2. “Train the next generation of leaders in the industry through education, and,”
3. “Outreach and knowledge transfer back to the industry, which in turn raises the profile of the Canadian wine industry globally”
This program requires work placements within the industry, and has roughly 30 full time students. Ninety percent of graduates go on to work in the wine industry either locally or across Canada.
It boasts that it has had a direct economic impact on the local wine industry in 2014/15 of $58,152,371, and the program hosts a number of promotional events for the industry, facilitates seminars and wine tastings at the Niagara Wine Festival, and the annual ‘Wine Tasting Challenge’. In early March, Brock is organizing the annual “Cuvée” wine tour weekend, a $175-$200 per person event involving more than 30 wineries in Niagara.
The CCOVI claims to “benefit the local industry, broader economy, and community at multiple levels.” Sounds great — but how do the thousands of migrant workers, displaced by global neoliberal trade agreements, and who are kept in a ‘permanently-temporary’ status, fit into the definition of ‘local’? With workers kept in precarious, low-wage employment, that drives down labour standards across the country, exactly whose profit is being celebrated? And what then, is our definition of “community”, if not one that willfully exploits, excludes, and disposes of thousands of workers that harvest our food, and the grapes for a luxury industry?
An estimated 4,000 workers come to the Niagara region each year under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), and many more come under the “low-skilled” branch of temporary foreign workers program (TFWP). SAWP workers leave their families to come to Canada to work for up to 8 months out of the year, while workers under the TFWP can stay for a maximum of 4 years (after which they must return home for an arbitrary period of 4 years before they may reapply into the program) The wine industry in Niagara is reliant on migrant labour for harvesting, and has a seemingly infinite pool of labour to be exploited and disposed of, from countries whose economies have been stagnated and decimated by foreign policy and neoliberal trade agreements.
SAWP workers are exempt from what is considered to be the very minimum standards that a human being should be treated in the workplace. Here’s a brief overview of just some of the issues that migrant agricultural workers face:
1. Denied access to EI benefits: SAWP workers contribute an estimated $21.5 Million in tax payments annually into the EI program, and yet they are barred from accessing nearly all benefits.
2. Hazardous work, workplace injury, and death: workers are often exposed to dangerous working conditions, exacerbated by exhaustion from long hours without breaks and improper training, and are often exposed to dangerous chemicals and pesticides.
3. Exempt from labour and human rights standards: Workers are tied to a single employer and cannot move freely between employers, and are denied the right to collectively bargain (a violation of sections 2 and 6 of The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and ILO conventions)
4. Discrimination: Employers are able to discriminate based on citizenship and gender in the hiring process; often grounded in racial and gendered stereotypes. Women in the program are particularly vulnerable for abuse, and workers often report facing isolation and racial abuse from the community. (read more: 1 , 2)
5. Workers can be repatriated at any time, for any reason, and without an appeals process. Their re-admittance into the program is also contingent on a positive recommendation from their employer. This ‘deportation regime’ leaves workers particularly vulnerable, and obviously reluctant to protest inhumane working and living conditions because they fear repatriation and the loss of their livelihood.
6. Denied overtime and holiday pay
7. Often lack of access to healthcare and social services, and health and safety training
8. Virtually no pathway to permanent status or citizenship
These conditions come out of discriminatory legislation and poor enforcement. This is not a few ‘bad apple’ farms. There are farms that treat their workers relatively well, but they are still denied a pathway to full status, the ability to bring their families, or access the benefits that they pay for. This is the standard of treatment for migrant farm workers.
With the Brock community being so heavily tied to the industry, we have an obligation to challenge this as students and as members of the community. It is imperative that we make an effort to support the workers who feed us, and who make the wine you drink (if that’s your thing). What exactly is there to be proud of in this partnership if thousands of workers, who are the backbone of this industry, are excluded, exploited, ignored, and disposed of? Until all workers are treated equally, and until all people are included in the community, Brock must reconsider it’s support for legislative, regulatory and institutional discrimination. To maintain the current position contradicts the mandate of a critical academic institution that it proclaims to be.
How to get involved & further reading:
Justicia for Migrant Workers is calling for action during the 50th anniversary of the SAWP; find out more and sign their petition here: http://harvestingfreedom.org/
Check out Brock Students Against Migrant Exploitation to get involved. We organize weekly ESL classes for workers alongside the Agricultural Workers Alliance: https://www.facebook.com/SAME-Brock-Chapter-147686032062574/
 Preibisch, K., & Binford, L. (2007). Interrogating Racialized Global Labour Supply: An Exploration of the Racial/National Replacement of Foreign Agricultural Workers in Canada. Canadian Review Of Sociology & Anthropology, 44(1), 5–36.