Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


January 2013, Volume 19, Number 1

Canada, SA, UK

Canada. A mining company's plans to hire only Chinese migrant workers at a coal mine launched a discussion of temporary foreign workers in Fall 2012. There were 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada in 2011, including 100,000 in low-skilled jobs.

HD Mining in April 2012 received a labor market opinion granting it permission to hire 201 Chinese coal miners for a project near Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. HD's recruitment ads said knowledge of Mandarin would be an advantage, which brought complaints from unions. Economists Herb Grubel and Arthur Sweetman argue that temporary foreign workers are subsidies to the industries that hire them, and their presence can make it difficult for immigrants to integrate into the Canadian labor market.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program admitted 16,000 Mexican and 8,000 Caribbean farm workers in 2012, including 3,600 Mexicans who went to British Columbia; 95 percent were married men. Migrant advocates say that, if SAWP workers complain about their employers, they are blacklisted and cannot return, so few complain.

The Mexican consulate says that 80 percent of SAWP workers have been employed in Canada before, including all 274 SAWP workers from Zacatecas. The Zacatecas state government says that married men with young children get priority to work in Canada, and that SAWP workers who do not return at the end of the season do not get the refunds of their payments into Canada's pension system.

Some 6,000 Guatemalan farm workers arrive in Canada each year under a program introduced with the help of the IOM, up from 215 in 2003. There are reports that these workers pay high fees in Guatemala in order to be selected into the program.

South Africa. Farm workers in South Africa's Western Cape went on strike in November 2012 for a minimum wage of R150 ($17) a day, up from the current minimum of R69 ($8), threatening the country's premier fruit and wine growing region. The strikes began in the table grape growing region of the Hex River valley around the city of De Dooms.

Farmers, who said they cannot afford R150 a day, offered a wage increase to R80 a day. Workers suspended their strike and returned to work December 5, 2012, but went on strike again January 9, 2013 after complaining that farm-by-farm negotiations did not produce wage increases. Two workers were killed during the December 2012 strikes, and many farmers hired security guards.

Some South African workers accused growers of preferring foreigners to local workers because they were willing to work for lower wages, while others alleged that farmers were making excessive profits from their low wages because they lived in better houses and drove expensive cars. Some farmers said that, if wages were doubled, they would mechanize, eliminating jobs.

AgriSA argued that outsiders were forcing farm workers to strike, while Cosatu union leaders called the R70 minimum wage a "slave wage." There are about 40,000 white commercial farms in South Africa, and some allow farm workers to live year-round on their farms rather than lay them off and force them to find off-season housing.

Some speculated that unions called strikes to pressure the government of President Jacob Zuma to intervene and help them to win wage increases. Zuma retained leadership of the African National Congress in December 2012.

UK. Labor contractors are known as gangmasters in the UK are regulated by the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA), which was created after 23 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay February 5, 2004. Most of the migrants who died were from Fujian, and most were in debt to those who helped them leave China for the UK.

In October 2012, Kent-based DJ Houghton Catching Services, which supplied Lithuanian workers to farms growing chickens for Noble Foods, one of the UK's largest processors of eggs and chickens, was charged with trafficking workers by holding 30 Lithuanians in debt peonage and forcing them to work off their debts. The Lithuanians repaid the L350 DJ Houghton charged them for jobs via deductions from their wages of L50 a week.

Many of the firms where the "trafficked Lithuanians" worked were members of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Freedom Foods, an organization that sets and enforces "decent working conditions" throughout the supply chain. Freedom Foods suspended DJ Houghton from providing workers for its operations.

Britain has used an Agricultural Wages Board to set minimum wages in agriculture, and the AWB has developed a six-level minimum wage system that requires workers to be paid from L6.19 to L9.40 an hour, depending on the worker's qualifications and experience. The government plans to abolish the AWB in 2013 and require that farm workers receive the national minimum wage of L6.19 ($10) an hour.

Mexico. Mexico had a peak 8.5 million workers employed in agriculture in the mid-1990s, and has had about six million workers employed in agriculture since 2007.

Netherlands. Ahold's Albert Heijn grocery stores, which have a 40 percent market share in the Netherlands, was accused in a December 2012 TV show of allowing migrant workers to be exploited in mushroom farms that supply its stores. Albert Heijn says that it buys mushrooms only from farms that have a "Fair Produce" certificate, but does not want to put the Fair Produce label on retail packages.

The Fair Produce system was developed in 2012 with help from the Ministry of Social Affairs. It currently certifies only mushrooms, but plans to spread to other commodities.

New Zealand. New Zealand is a major dairy exporter, and a rising share of workers employed in New Zealand dairies are foreigners. The Federated Farmer's Dairy Industry Group estimated that 20 percent of workers employed on New Zealand dairies were foreigners, and that New Zealand farmers preferred to hire workers from the Philippines and other Asian countries who had worked with large herds and modern machinery in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil exporters.