Canada’s federal government is facing a nearly half-billion dollar class action lawsuit from seasonal agricultural workers who say they were denied benefits and exploited, thanks to what they’re calling racist policies from the 1960s that are still in place today.

One of the plaintiffs, Kevin Palmer, told CTV News in an interview from Jamaica that in his six years labouring as a temporary foreign worker eight months at a time in Leamington, Ontario, he lived with 12 men in one room and didn’t get paid overtime. He says his health was also affected by the pesticides he sprayed.

“I’m telling you, man, it was horrible,” Palmer said. “They treat dogs in Canada much better than men.”

The lawsuit says that Palmer was let go with no notice. Because his work permit was tied to his employer, he had to leave the country, and was not eligible to receive any employment insurance, even though premiums had been withheld from all of his pay cheques.

That system is at the root of discriminatory policies that are unconstitutional and need to be changed, said Palmer’s lawyer Louis Century.

“This brings us back to a dark chapter of our country’s history that should be relegated to the past,” Century said in an interview.

EI payouts are denied for around 50,000 temporary foreign workers who come to Canada every year to work the fields, before heading back to their homes in countries that include islands in the Caribbean, Mexico, India and the Philippines, Century said.

The lawsuit alleges that over the past 15 years, the federal government has taken in some $472 million in EI premiums from people in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program’s agricultural stream, and hasn’t paid out.

“The unjust enrichment was done on the backs of one of the most vulnerable segments of the Canadian workforce: migrant agricultural workers,” the lawsuit alleges.

The workers were made more vulnerable because their work permits tie them to one employer – a policy from the 1960s that generally didn’t affect white European workers, but still applies in the program today, the lawsuit says.

“Tied employment was imposed as a means to restrict the freedom of Black and Indo Canadian farmworkers on racial grounds. It was motivated by overtly racist policy objectives,” the lawsuit says. “Canada continues to impose it on Class Members, in full knowledge of the suffering it causes.”

The suit lists parts of communications between federal government bureaucrats and ministers from that era, including one October 1960 memo from Canada’s deputy minister of citizenship and immigration, who said, “We do not want these people to remain in Canada: we do not want to get involved in the difficulty or embarrassment of forcing them out.”

“Tied employment has at its root overtly racist policy from the 1960s,” Century said. “The decades have passed and we forget that history. We are challenging tied employment on the basis it was imposed as a racist policy. It’s discriminatory in its purpose,” he said.

The federal government has not yet replied to the claim in Toronto Superior Court. But various House of Commons committees have recognized that tying work permits to a particular employer may lead to exploitation.

In the last few years, the government has let workers vary their work permits if they can show they have been abused.

Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia for Migrant Workers said more needs to be done – and called for full freedom of movement for any temporary foreign worker.

“The agricultural industry should not be set up in such a way that denies people from the global south rights which we all should have,” Ramsaroop said.

Palmer said he still thinks highly of Canada as a country, but urged lawmakers to take his concerns seriously because the opportunities that the program offers to bring home a good wage to their families in another country are still promising.

“The program itself is a good thing. The system needs to change,” he said.