OHCOW staff presents to House of Commons Committee

OHCOW staff presents to House of Commons Committee on Mental Health Challenges Facing Canadian Farmers. 

On Tuesday October 30th, OHCOW Migrant Farm Worker Program coordinator, Eduardo Huesca, and occupational health nurse, Michelle Tew, were honoured to present to the House of Commons Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food in Ottawa, as part of the committee’s study on the mental health challenges facing Canadian farmers, ranchers, and producers. 

Our key message to this committee is the recommendation that they include migrant farm workers, and the mental health challenges these workers are facing, into the committee’s study, and into their consideration of what responses and mental health supports are needed for the agricultural community. 

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Close to 50 000 individuals arrive in Canada each year from Mexico, Jamaica, and various countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia to work on Canadian farms, under temporary work permits. These individuals (often referred to as migrant farm workers, or temporary foreign agricultural workers), have been responding to the severe labour shortages in Canadian agriculture since the 1960s, and are recognized as vital to the success of this industry.  

Our intention, in presenting to the House of Commons Committee, was not to overshadow concern directed at the mental health of Canadian farmers. While acknowledging the resilience of Canadian farmers, we recognize the hardships they face, and their need for support.

However, we echo Dr Patrick Smith, National Chief Executive Officer, of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) who noted in his presentation to the House of Commons Committee, “We also cannot forget some of the most vulnerable and invisible members of this (the agricultural) community: migrant farm workers”.

Mental Health and Migrant Farm Workers 

Through our direct work with Ontario migrant farm workers, we have started to identify mental health challenges affecting these workers. Our findings are reflected in a growing body of research in this area, as well as in clinical data emerging from Ontario Community Health Centres, running specialized primary health clinics for migrant farm workers in key agricultural regions.  

Migrant farm workers face some of the same mental health stressors affecting farmers, stemming from industry production pressures and challenging agricultural work practices. Occupational and environmental hazards include:  long hours; physically demanding work; challenging work postures and repetitive movements; high work pace and pressure to complete work tasks quickly; potential exposure to industry irritants and biological and chemical hazards, including dust, pollen, mold, and pesticides; challenging indoor and outdoor work temperatures and weather conditions. These work practices and potential exposures, continue to be 'part of the job', but can take a toll on the physical and mental health of farmers and migrant farm workers. In addition, as both groups recognize, breaks and opportunities for time off work are limited in this demanding work context. 

Like farmers, migrant farm workers also face additional stressors. In their case, these include stressors rooted in their experience as racialized, temporary status migrants. Migration stressors include: family separation; experiencing challenges with language and cultural differences in Canada, and from these the potential for social isolation; difficulties integrating into Canadian communities; and challenges independently navigating supports or services. Long hours, and six, or six and a half day work weeks, make it difficult for many interested migrant farm workers to devote time to overcoming social integration challenges, or engage in social activities.  As well, though many migrant farm workers report developing supportive relationships with local Canadian residents, others identify feeling misjudged, unacknowledged, unwelcomed, or in some cases, even discriminated against in the Canadian towns where they work.  

Migrant farm workers note feeling excluded from considerations over their working and living conditions in Canada, and intimidated to participate or share their feedback or concerns, for fear that this will be received negatively (and possibly jeopardize their continuation under their labour program).  Though many migrant farm workers identify positive relationships with their employers and farm management staff, others note they feel as though management is not open to hearing their concerns. 

Some migrant farm workers identify feeling fearful and anxious of injury or illness while in Canada, and reluctant to identify health issues or seek treatment. These workers note that this often stems from the anxiety of not knowing how and where to seek medical treatment, as well as from a fear that if their injury or health issue is identified, they may be sent back to their home country, and replaced with a ‘healthy’ worker. 

These physical and psychosocial stressors result in negative health outcomes such as high stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation and loneliness, of lacking value or being disposable, of discrimination, of powerlessness and a lack of agency, frustration, sadness, anger, physical and mental exhaustion, insomnia, and depression.

Important social supports from local residents have developed around migrant farm workers, however, these workers face challenges accessing effective mental health supports or health care in general.  Currently, there seem to be no services available that are specific to supporting the mental health of these workers.   

A need for collaboration moving forward

The concern for the mental health of Canadian Farmers, reaching a peak in the House of Commons committee study, has been fuelled by the findings of a 2016 research study from the University of Guelph led by Dr Andria Jones-Bitton. The study surveyed 1, 100 agricultural producers across Canada, identifying significant mental health challenges affecting this group. This research has had a strong impact on motivating government and stakeholders to act in support of the mental health of Canadian farmers. 

At OHCOW’s 2017 Ontario Migrant Farm Worker Health Forum held at Brock University, we invited Colleen Best, a member of Dr Jones-Bitton’s research team, to present alongside Stephanie Mayell, a leading researcher in migrant farm worker mental health, as part of a session entitled Mental Health in Agriculture. The discussion that followed the presentations recognized differences, commonalities, and intersections, between the mental health of farmers and migrant farm workers, and identified an opportunity for greater understanding and empathy across these groups, as well as potential areas of intervention that may be mutually supportive.  

Recognizing this opportunity to work with, and support both farmers and migrant farm workers, towards mutually beneficial outcomes, OHCOW’ s Migrant Farm Worker Program is preparing a follow-up brief to submit to the House of Commons Committee. Our brief will help the committee further understand the experience and mental health challenges facing migrant farm workers, as well as provide recommendations that support the mental health of these workers and that of the Canadian farmers who hire them. 

Again, the end goal of this work should be to prioritize a mental health strategy for the industry that responds to the needs of all of those affected and demonstrates a commitment to support a healthy agricultural sector for all of those involved

The link to the transcript of OHCOW’s presentation to the House of Commons Committee can be found here: http://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/AGRI/meeting-114/evidence#Int-10336100 

For more information on this issue, contact: Eduardo Huesca at ehuesca@ohcow.on.ca


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