The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a myriad of systemic issues in Canada, and some of the most reported-on undoubtedly relate to our food system. Health-and-safety related complaints from mostly seasonal or migrant agricultural workers across Canada have raised public concerns, and while COVID-19 has amplified these issues, they are certainly not new. These issues stem from centuries of a racialized workforce, and make themselves apparent in varied, harmful ways.
Canada has been relying on migrant agricultural labour for a long time. The Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) has been meeting the agricultural industry’s labour needs in Canada since 1974 (Brem, 2006, pp. 2). This program, as described on The Government of Canada’s website, states that employers can hire temporary foreign workers (referred to as TFWs) from Mexico and participating Carribean countries for no more than 8 months, and must offer a minimum of 240 hours of work within a 6-week period (Government of Canada).
Workers in the SAWP program face regular injustices. Working up to 14 hour days on little pay and unlivable conditions, and forced to work while sick or injured, many complaints have been brought forward, with little to no change (The Canadian Press, 2019). Many workers have reported pest infestations and sewage leaks (Mojtehedzadeh & Renwick, 2019), beatings, harassment, and sexual violence (Weiler, 2018). Furthermore, many are denied medical attention for serious health issues (Brend, 2017), a problem only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which, in fear of a supply chain breakdown (Nickel & Walljasper, 2020), workers are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers (Mojtehedzadeh, 2020), and with close living conditions and forced labour through illness (yes, even COVID-19) causing dramatic spikes in coronavirus cases among these migrant labourers (Bogart, 2020).
While this might seem shocking, Canada is no stranger to out-sourcing labour: to utilize only one other example of Canada’s history with migrant labourers, we can turn to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was built in the 19th century by a majority of Chinese labourers, who worked for very little pay under extremely harsh, often deadly conditions (Sylvester, 2016). While of course these situations both come with their own specific injustices, it is clear that Canada has, both historically and in the present day, fostered a systemic relationship with migrant labour, outsourcing physically difficult, underpaid labour to racialized folks.
This unbalanced system, which focuses on maximizing profit and accessibility of food to the global North, at the expense of workers from the global South (Steacy & Bernard, 2020), is maintained through racist ideologies and systems. While recognized as imperative to the function of Canada’s supply chain (Hastie, 2020), migrant workers are still often seen as disposable, or impervious to physical harm (Valiente, 2020). When these racialized workers are only valued for the product their labour allows, and when the Canadian food system relies on this unjust labour, it is clear that systemic change needs to take place.
Bogart, N. (June 29, 2020). Advocates demand Ontario shut down farms as COVID-19 cases soar among workers. CTV News. Retrieved from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-demand-ontario-shut-down-farms-as-covid-19-cases-soar-among-workers-1.5004897
Brem, Maxwell. (2006). Migrant workers in Canada: a review of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The North-South Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.nsi-ins.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2006-Migrant-Workers-in-Canada-A-review-of-the-Canadian-Seasonal-Agricultural-Workers-Program.pdf
Brend, Y. (August 26, 2017). Mexican farm worker says he was told heart attack symptoms caused by ‘too much chili.’ CBC. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/migrant-worker-mexican-farm-labour-heart-damage-cranberry-richmond-bc-1.4261565
Government of Canada. Hire a temporary worker through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program: Overview. Retrieved on July 15th, 2020, from: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/foreign-workers/agricultural/seasonal-agricultural.html
Hastle, B. (May 12, 2020). The coronavirus reveals the necessity of Canada’s migrant workers. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/the-coronavirus-reveals-the-necessity-of-canadas-migrant-workers-136360
Mojtehedzadeh, S. (April 13, 2020). Migrant farm workers from Jamaica are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers. The Star. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/04/13/migrant-farm-workers-fear-exposure-to-covid-19.html
Mojtehedzadeh, S., and Renwick, M. (October 14, 2019). Snakes, rats, bedbugs, abuse. Migrant worker complains expose underside of Canada’s seasonal agriculture program. The Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved from: https://www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/2019/10/14/snakes-rats-bedbugs-abuse-migrant-worker-complaints-expose-underside-of-canada-s-seasonal-agriculture-program.html
Nickel, R., and Walljasper, C. (April 6, 2020). Canada, U.S. farms face crop losses due to foreign worker delays. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-farmworkers/canada-u-s-farms-face-crop-losses-due-to-foreign-worker-delays-idUSKBN21O179
Steacy, L., and Bernard, R. (March 20, 2020). ‘Crucial to our food security:’ Canada remains open to temporary foreign farm workers. CityNews. Retrieved from: https://edmonton.citynews.ca/2020/03/20/temporary-farm-workers-essential-border/
Sylvester, E. (April 28, 2016). Now and then: Chinese railroad workers memorial. Torontoist. Retrieved from: https://torontoist.com/2016/04/now-and-then-chinese-railroad-workers/
The Canadian Press Staff. (March 16, 2019). Calls for reform after Ontario migrant workers claim they worked in terrible conditions. Global News. Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/5063850/migrant-workers-reform-ontario/
Valiente, G. (April 27, 2020). Farmers say it takes more than two Quebecers to replace one migrant worker. Canada’s National Observer. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/04/27/news/farmers-say-it-takes-more-two-quebecers-replace-one-migrant-worker
Weiler, A. (May 4, 2018). Migrant farm workers vulnerable to sexual violence: UofT expert. UofT News. Retrieved from: https://www.utoronto.ca/news/migrant-farm-workers-vulnerable-sexual-violence-u-t-expert