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A Green Party candidate is apologizing for calling Canada's temporary foreign worker program "modern day slavery" during an agriculture debate, a comment that outraged fruit farmers who depend heavily on labourers from other countries.
Kate Storey, an organic farmer running for the party in the federal riding of Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa in Manitoba, made the remarks toward the end of a two-hour debate in Ottawa among four candidates on Sept. 24 that was posted online.
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Temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico or Jamaica, make a significant contribution to Canada's agriculture industry.
Larry Lutz, head of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association, has employed Jamaican workers for 11 years. With many Nova Scotians uninterested in seasonal farm jobs, he relies on nine men from the Carribbean country to help pick the fall apple harvest.
"I was quite infuriated to have somebody say that we treat our workers like slaves," said Lutz as he showed CBC News around the Lutz Family Farm in Rockland, N.S., as employees worked alongside his son-in-law.
"They certainly never came here to see how we treat people."
Statement from Green Party
On Thursday, the Green Party issued a statement on Storey's behalf that said she "regrets her unfortunate choice of words during the recent agriculture debate and apologizes for any offence she has caused."
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The party is still vowing to cancel the program.
At the debate, Storey said the program "exploits desperate people who have no human rights" and is "nothing more than modern day slavery."
The reference to slavery was hurtful to Rohan Thomas, who's working his fifth season on the Lutz farm, sometimes side by side with his boss. Without the work, he said it would be a "big blow" for his family back home.
"The slavery was like shackles and chains and someone bossing you around to do things that you did not want to do," said Thomas. "It is wrong to talk about slaving when we are not."
Storey claimed the "cheap wages" earned by temporary foreign workers are clawed back one-third for housing and they're denied health care and "sent back home" if they object.
Lutz called the allegations false. He said employers provide housing at no cost. At his farm, there are two bunkhouses for employees. He said temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector are paid minimum wage and guaranteed to be paid for at least 240 hours of work
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Through an agreement with the Jamaican government, there is a payroll deduction to cover the cost of health care. (In Ontario, the provincial health care plan insures temporary workers.)
The maximum a temporary employee is expected to contribute toward their airfare is half the cost, but shorter-term workers pay less.
Employers are audited to ensure compliance with program rules and labour laws. Fines can include a monetary penalty and/or a ban from hiring temporary workers.
In Nova Scotia, there are 1,476 temporary farm workers on 81 fruit and vegetable farms.
Lutz said there would be no tree fruit industry in Nova Scotia without the workers where 80 per cent of the apples, peaches and pears are picked by temporary workers.
He said the costs associated with hiring foreign workers adds 25 per cent to his operating budget compared to hiring local workers.
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In Ontario, approximately 19,000 temporary foreign workers are employed at 1,450 farms, said Ken Forth. He heads up FARMS, the organization that administers the temporary foreign worker program in Manitoba, Ontario and Atlantic Canada. He said Storey's comments "espoused hatred" toward employers and labourers.
"It's absolutely appalling that somebody who is running to run our country would actually say something like that. I think everybody should be enraged by it," said Forth.
The Green Party pledge to scrap the program prompted a plea from Leon Smith, one of the Lutz farm's first temporary workers.
"Just join hands and heart, and help people because we love to be here," said Smith. "This program means a lot to us."
He said he's grateful for his eight-month work term that provides "a little bit more comfort" for his wife, four kids and parents, adding there's even enough leftover to help out his nieces and nephews. Smith said it would be difficult to provide for his family on a typical Jamaican wage.
"It's no modern day slavery, that's over and done with," said Smith.
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