Agricultural Migrant Workers in Canada

From UBC Wiki

The agricultural sphere in Canada is growing globally, there is increased competition in the marketplace, and therefore, Canada is using migrant workers to maintain their competitive edge. By using migrant workers, Canada’s agricultural businesses are able to compete in the global market due to paying workers a cheaper rate and therefore ensuring that they will have a higher profit margin. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to benefit from the globalization of commodities. Priebisch and Binford (2007) suggest that “contemporary patterns of accumulation under globalization increasingly rest on a labour market flexibility achieved through deepening labour segmentation on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender and citizenship” (p. 6). Canada has two programs that bring migrant workers over to Canada, these programs use racialized and gendered ideologies that further oppress women more than men who choose to work abroad as migrant workers. The agricultural sphere produces the most stigmatization towards migrant women workers versus migrant domestic home-care workers due to government, and employer ideologies.


Canada uses two main programs to bring migrant workers over: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), and the Low Skilled Pilot Project (LSPP). The SAWP has been implemented since 1966, and has consistent “low rates of non-return” migrant workers which have allowed the program to remain at its highly regarded reputation, according to Preibisch (2010, p. 410). However the LSPP is a new program that started in 2002, it is a more open program to “employers seeking to hire temporary visa workers including those within agrifood industries” (Preibisch, 2010, p. 410). Canada is using migrant workers at an increasing rate in the agricultural industry, as it requires many low skilled migrants versus high skilled migrants, thus many are brought over at a time.


To be accepted as a migrant worker, the individual is required to have dependents in their country of origin so as to prevent them from settling in Canada due to the familial responsibilities in their home country (Preibisch & Grez, 2010). At the end of the contract, migrant workers must return back to their homeland; these contracts are also employer specific and therefore, prevent mobility among workers to find other work. This causes migrant workers to “have limited bargaining power to press for improved working or living conditions” (Preibisch, 2005, p. 91). In addition, migrants are selected based on their need, thus migrants often come from poverty stricken areas, this is done in order for employers to ensure that the migrant workers are “much more willing and committed workforce than that available within Canada” (Preibisch & Grez, 2010, p. 297). Within the program contracts, workers “are required to reside in owner-designated housing, perform their work in a timely and responsible manner, and follow without complaint all employer requests that do not place their health in danger” in addition to having at least one day off of work where they are able to relax, unless otherwise agreed upon (Priebisch & Binford, 2007, p. 12).


“Studies have shown convincingly that governments, employers and migrant placement agencies hold racialized (and gendered) preferences for migrants” (Preibisch & Binford, 2007, p. 8). The preference of employers to select a particular race creates racialized stereotypes and hierarchies among racial groups, causing increased competition among the races, and in turn making the migrant workers as “less deserving of the rights afforded citizens” of Canada, and “more exploitable as cheap labour” (Preibisch & Binford, 2007, p. 9). Employers tend to follow the stereotype that “in general, Mexican workers are considered to be shorter in stature and are preferred for work that involves stooping close to the ground, while Caribbean workers are considered more suited to fruit tree-picking” (Preibisch & Binford, 2007, p. 17). Thus, depending on the market need for a commodity, a particular race may be selected over another due to the racialized stereotypes created among employers.


The agriculture industry is highly gendered through gender ideologies of what men and women are able to do. It has previously been regarded as a male dominated sphere, but increasingly women are coming over to perform agricultural tasks. Preibisch and Grez (2010) note that “on the farm, work is assigned and ranked according to gender”, this type of organization “reflect and reinforce women’s social and economic marginalization in the rural sphere” (p. 292). Women currently make up from two to three percent of the migrant workforce that comes to Canada to perform agricultural jobs, and most of these women migrant workers are from Mexico (Preibisch & Grez, 2010, p. 207). In order for women to be accepted into the migrant programs they “are often sole heads of households” and often “widowed, separated or divorced” (Preibisch, 2005, p. 94), as well as, women workers are also required to do a pregnancy test before coming over to Canada (Preibisch & Binford, 2007). Women migrant workers are paid less than male migrant workers, and therefore “women have become marginal, cheap, and highly exploited labour force” (Sachs & Alston, 2010, p. 280). In addition, migrant workers’ “wages are further subject to a series of federal and program-specific deductions” resulting in their wages being less than minimum wage (Preibisch, 2010, p. 414).


Even within the academics the literature seems to be gendered, in that many studies are done on migrant domestic caregivers but not migrant female farm workers. From a historical context women’s bodies and abilities on the farm have been seen as inferior and devalued. There have been a few studies interviewing female migrant workers in this area and reported their results of the working conditions. Kerry L. Preibisch and Evelyn Encalada Grez just did a study in 2010 and reported their findings in the article The Other Side of el Otto Lado: Mexican Migrant Women and Labor Flexibility in Canadian Agriculture. Many women in this study, and previous studies, express the reason why they do this is for their children. In this study all but three of the women had children, half single mothers. Many husbands threaten the wife, saying they will leave if they migrate to Canada, and many actually do once the woman decides the wellbeing of her children is more important. One women’s father and brother were in the program but refused to give her any information or help in getting her involved (Preibisch & Grez, 2011). Once the women finally get to Canada through a program, they face more hostility, not only from their home land but non-migrant women, labeling them bad mothers for leaving their children and even classifying them as prostitutes and home wreckers (Preibisch & Grez, 2011, p. 299). The women must decide if it is worth the strain and scrutiny from society, strain not only their relationship with their own children but also with everyone who judges her. It is seen that men’s migration is socially accepted while women’s is vilified (Preibisch & Grez, 2011). However when women speak about their injustices and discrimination they always relay back how they are doing this, sacrificing, for their children, to give them a better life with more alternative chances for their future (Preibisch & Grez, 2011, p. 300).


Canadian employers and civil servants hold rigid gender ideologies that perceive women as less suitable for farm-work, and even when hired will hold only certain jobs, whereas men as seen as capable to everything (Preibisch & Hermoso Santamaria, 2006). Women as usually seen as better at doing such things as whole packaging or sorting; standing on their feet using their hands and precision. Having temporary migrant workers enables the employers a range of practices that hinge on differentiating workers on the basis of gendered and radicalized criteria. Employers and civil servants acknowledge this and state that it is on purpose to “create barriers within the workplace that will both mitigate the potential for greater socializing that accompanies the introduction of a mixed-sex environment and reduce the formation of intimate relationships that could create new social commitments” (Preibisch & Grez, 2011, p. 304). Many employers and civil servants express the common negative stereotype of women being problematic, hence the low numbers of them. Being problematic a diverse set of traits considered feminine; from infighting, ability to reproduce, to “reaching out to advocacy organizations or Mexican authorities to solve their personal or workplace concern” (Preibisch & Grez, 2011, p. 305). So there is not only competition between races but also competition between women. This is also heightened by the systems male-dominated community, in which women are highly sexualized. Then taken in conjunction with the close living quarters, sharing a room with multiple people, this creates even more tension. Women problems must be taken into consideration with these limitations.

An article titled One Women’s Grain of Sand: The Struggle for Dignified Treatment of Canada’s Foreign Agricultural Workers, by Kerry Preibisch, tells the story of Teresa Aleman, a migrant worker mistreated and fired for speaking out. Aleman came to Canada through the Low Skilled Worker Program to work on bait farm. Once here the injustices started, from living in a single room with four women to no toilet or water at the worksite (Preibisch, 2005). People from her group started getting sent home after the first week for not yielding enough, when in their contract it stated they would get four weeks of training (Preibisch, 2005). When Aleman spoke out, she got fired. They called her a troublemaker and the boss had “no reason keeping a conflicting women like [her] even though she was the best worker” (Preibisch, 2005, p.99). Aleman was seen as problematic because she fought for basic human rights.


One last injustice put forth on only women is restrictions on their mobility. Much of the research has found “that women's movements and sexuality are highly constrained by practices restricting women to the farm property, prohibiting or curtailing visitors of the opposite sex, and establishing curfews” (Preibisch & Grez, 2011, p. 305; Preibisch & Hermoso Santamaría, 2006; Becerril 2007). These restrictions range from signs permitting no males on the property, video surveillance, females ratting on other females, females not allowed to leave the farm premises, to the extreme of pre-departure waiver and lectures on no sexual relations (Preibisch & Grez, 2011; Preibisch & Hermoso Santamaría, 2006; Becerril 2007).


This program, migrating to Canada is not all bad though. Many women say it is liberating, expanding gender responsibilities and recreating what it is to be a good mother (Preibisch & Grez, 2011). Pushing boundaries and creating new hopes for their child is what drives these women to work long days even with critics at their back. The strength and determination these women have is inspirational, leading a new way, however, the discrimination they face with migration must not be overlooked. Yes they make more money than they could ever imagine if working in Mexico, yet that does not give the employers the right to abuse these workers’ basic human rights.


Becerril, O. (2007). “Transnational Work and the Gendered Politics of Labour: A Study of Male and Female Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada.” In Organizing the Transnational: Labour, Politics, and Social Change, ed. Luin Goldring and Sailaja Krishnamurti, 157-71. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Preibisch, K. (2005). Gender Transformative Odysseys: Tracing the Experiences of Transnational Migrant Women in Rural Canada. Canadian Woman Studies, 24(4), 91-97. Retrieved from

Preibisch, K. (2010). Pick-Your-Own Labor: Migrant Workers and Flexibility in Canadian Agriculture. IMR: International Migration Review, 44(2), 404-441. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7379.2010.00811.x

Preibisch, K., & Aleman, A. (2005). One Woman’s Grain of Sand: The Struggle for the Dignified Treatment of Canada’s Foreign Agricultural Workers. Canadian Woman Studies, 24(4), 98-101. Retrieved from

Preibisch, K., & Binford, L. (2007). Interrogating Racialized Global Labour Supply: An Exploration of the Racial/National Replacement of Foreign Agricultural Workers in Canada. CRSA/RCSA, 44(1). Retrieved from

Preibisch, K. L., & Grez, E. E. (2010). The Other Side of el Otro Lado: Mexican Migrant Women and Labor Flexibility in Canadian Agriculture. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 35(2), 289-316. Retrieved from

Preibisch, K., & Hermoso Santamaría, L. M. (2006). "Engendering Labour Migration: The Case of Foreign Workers in Canadian Agriculture." In Women, Migration and Citizenship: Making Local, National and Transnational Con-nections, ed. Evangelia Tastsoglou and Alexandra Dobrowolsky, 107-30. Al-dershot: Ashgate.

Sachs, C., & Alston, M. (2010). Global Shifts, Sedimentations, and Imaginaries: An Introduciton to the Special Issue on Women and Agriculture. Signs, 35(2), 277-287. Retrieved from