Invisible and precarious: A scoping review of gender-based violence in agricultural streams of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program

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About the project

Temporary Foreign Agricultural Workers (TFAWs) are critical sources of labour for Canada’s agricultural sector. However, TFAWs experience complex vulnerabilities as a result of structural inequalities and discrimination within agricultural streams of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). The multiple, diverse, and intersecting social identities of TFAWs (e.g., gender, age, race, nationality, sex, language and socio-economic status) may compound to exacerbate or lessen vulnerabilities, including gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination.

Through a scoping review of academic and grey literature, this research contributes to conceptual and practical knowledge regarding GBV in Canada’s agricultural TFWP in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. The following objectives guided our research:

  1. Collect documented evidence regarding GBV and TFAWs in the agricultural sector.
  2. Describe how GBV is experienced differently by diverse groups of TFAWs in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
  3. Understand how policies address or confront GBV experienced by TFAWs in these three provinces.
  4. Outline which infrastructure exists to support TFAWs and how supports can be enhanced to better support TFAWs who experience GBV.

Our search strategy returned 1,273 grey and academic articles, 128 of which were selected for full-text review. Of those, 62 sources met our criteria for data extraction and were reviewed using a Gender-Transformative Approach and a Systems Thinking framework to examine how structures and institutions (formal and informal) create and exacerbate inequalities between TFAWs while influencing the formation of systems’ structures which either promote or negate GBV.

Key findings

Despite recognition that the TFWP is highly racialized and gendered, much of the literature on TFAWs in Canada is gender-blind and there is very limited discussion or reporting on GBV within the program. Furthermore, existing discussion regarding gender in relation to the TFWP is limited to the gender binary and does not address 2SLGBTQI+ individuals, community or experience.

Structural inequalities and power imbalances make TFAW workers vulnerable, as a result they are disincentivized and have limited opportunity to report grievances including substandard living and working conditions, workplace injuries or health-related concerns, discrimination, violence, and abuse, among others.

Beyond the workplace, the TFWP also impacts social relationships of workers.

  • Home country: Separation disrupts familial duties and assumed gender roles/responsibilities, destabilizes family dynamics, and impacts socio-economic conditions.
  • Canada: Migrant workers often have weak social ties and feel disconnected from the community where they reside and their colleagues as a result of geographic isolation, racism and racial bias, and the competitive and intensive nature of their work.

National and transnational policies related to the TFWP establish and maintain structural vulnerabilities and conditions, including:

  • Dependence - Canada: Cheap, productive labour integral to agricultural sectors’ competitive capacity.
  • Dependence - sending country: Contribution of remittances to national incomes limits the advocacy power of sending countries.
  • Dependence - employer: For the duration of contract workers are bound to a single employer who can repatriate them without explanation.
  • Health and safety risks: Associated with agricultural work.
  • Precarious legal status: Risk of deportation (lost livelihood) limits assertion of rights, creates insecurity.
  • Education and language barriers: Impact workers' understanding of support mechanisms and rights.

Gendered vulnerabilities and conditions:

  • Recruitment practices: Preferred sex/gender, nationality and marital status (having dependents) results in fewer opportunities for female workers, increasing exposure to sexual harassment and exploitation.
  • Women’s surveillance and mobility: Barriers impact legal, social and health resource access.
  • Invisibility: Limited female participation, voice and power results in gender-blind policy, research and advocacy.

There are multi-sectoral, diverse and growing support mechanisms involved in the TFWP:

  • Formal: Policies, legal frameworks, training and guidelines (at all three levels of government).
  • Informal: NGOs, services providers and community groups.

The literature argues that existing support mechanisms are hindered by a patchwork legal approach, complaint-driven regulatory regime, limited enforcement practices, and barriers to accessing permanent residency.

Policy implications

  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI): to ensure regulations and practices at all levels of government adequately consider the identities of individual workers to expand their scope, reach and ability to protect against GBV. DEI aspects should be systematically included in policy, to meaningfully incorporate diverse migrant group stakeholders to address gaps in protections.
  • Introducing Gender Responsive (GR) policies: to identify and address structural and institutional barriers to equality can increase the visibility and power of female TFAWs in Canada, and reduce GBV. GR policies go beyond removal of gender-based recruitment practices to support education, information and outreach directed at shifting gender norms, beliefs and attitudes that underpin structural inequality and violence towards women.
  • Applying an intersectional lens to GBV policies: to address intersecting forms of discrimination to advance equity and equality. An intersectional lens should be integrated into policies to identify those groups who experience inequality and violence as a result of interconnected and layered systems of discrimination.
  • Holistic support (formal and informal) at local, provincial and national levels: to support different groups of workers’ experiences and their rights to report grievances (including GBV) and refuse unsafe work. Open work permits (not tied to a specific employer), accessible permanent residency opportunities, and proactive and unannounced inspections provide institutional support. Non-governmental stakeholders that can be neutral for transparency, fairness and accountability should provide supporting services.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Dr. Silvia Sarapura, Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph:

Nicole Cupolo, MSc. Candidate, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph:

Margarita Fontecha, PhD Candidate, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph:

Charlotte Potter, PhD Candidate, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph:

Regan Zink, PhD Student, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph:

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