Migrant farm workers in times of COVID

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As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Southwestern Ontario put migrant farm workers in the spotlight, various dimensions of the temporary foreign worker program have also received coverage in the Canadian media. The most salient topic in this public debate was the essential nature of farm work at a time when the pandemic crisis put a strain on the food supply chain, making it vulnerable to shortages.

To be sure, the pandemic exposed some of the weakest links along the Canadian food supply chain such as working conditions, food pricing, climate change and export reliance. This exposure has reminded us how the food supply chain is not a linear scheme as the term chain suggests, but rather a complex and multi-layered assemblage of networks mobilized by the work of people and nature. This realization also brought to the centre stage those who typically remained behind the scenes: the migrant farm workers.

However, the acknowledged essentiality of migrant farm workers has so far proved futile for improving the abject material conditions of their employment. On April 13th, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released news that the federal government was taking steps towards “keeping Canadians and workers in the food supply chain safe” (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2020). According to the press release, the federal government would provide employers with $1,500 for each of their temporary foreign workers in order to ensure the conditions of protection from COVID-19, including a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. The news was received with criticism by many farm worker and public health advocacy groups who have been drawing attention to the power dynamics underlying the employer-farm worker relationship (Bogart, 2020; Dunsworth, 2020; Emmanuel, 2020; Rawal, 2020). Governed by the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), this relationship has time and time again been problematized for its dependence on the goodwill of the employer. The most critiqued aspect of Canada’s temporary farm worker regime has been the employer’s power to “name” the workers whom they wanted for the following year (Weiler & McLaughlin, 2019). While naming can provide a degree of job security and quicken the bureaucratic process of a worker’s return to Canada for the following season, it is important to note that the power to name is exercised entirely at the employers’ discretion, giving the employers ultimate authority over the workers’ futures.

In the case of the COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario farms, the provincial government opted to maintain the highly exploitative migrant farm worker regime characterized by poor working and living conditions as well as a lack of a reasonable path to permanent resident status. On June 24th, a public health guidance was published by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), simply allowing migrant agricultural workers who tested positive for COVID-19 to continue working if they are deemed “critical to operations” (Office of the Premier, 2020). The corona-positive workers were advised to “adhere to public health measures’ ‘(ibid) despite the fact that working and living conditions at most farms were not conducive to the required social distancing measures. In fact, the lack of separate sanitation facilities and basic hygiene supplies had been issues waiting to be addressed long before the pandemic. While the Medical Officer of Health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit rescinded the CMOH guidance, the guidance remains in effect for the province (Grant & Baum, 2020) .

Migrant agricultural workers in Ontario lived and worked under conditions of precarity and exploitation for many years before the pandemic. Premised on the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the legality of migrant farm workers’ presence in Ontario is entirely tied to their specific employer (Hennebry & Preibisch). If the workers experience unsafe living and working conditions, they find themselves in a thorny situation where quitting that particular farm might mean not receiving a positive seasonal evaluation from the employer, hence risking their return the following year (Weiler, 2018). Although in 2019, the Canadian government took steps towards preventing temporary foreign worker vulnerability by allowing migrant workers to apply for open work permits (as opposed to closed work permits that directly link the workers and their rights to their employer), the revised guidelines still require the workers to prove employer abuse before qualifying for an open work permit (Weiler & McLaughlin, 2019). Further, finding another employer who is already enrolled in the SAWP program can prove to be quite difficult for migrant workers (ibid).

These power dynamics inherent to the employer-farm worker relationship has made it very hard for the workers to stand up for safe living and working conditions. This systemic issue has been amplified by the pandemic, especially after the provincial government’s recent public health response that has privileged the economic gains of the agri-food industry over the health and lives of temporary farm workers. Any legal protection that is put in place to protect this vulnerable group of workers will fail at the enforcement stage as long as the workers know that they can be fired and sent back to their country of origin at their employer’s discretion. While the pandemic brought some visibility to the temporary farm workers’ essential role along Canada’s food supply chain, the structural issues of the SAWP still remain as roadblocks for a just and equitable society so long as the root causes of COVID outbreaks among migrant workers in Ontario are not addressed.

Works cited

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2020, April 13). Keeping Canadians and workers in the food supply chain safe [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/agriculture-agri-food/news/2020/04/keeping-canadians-and-workers-in-the-food-supply-chain-safe.html

Bogart, N. (2020, June 29). Advocates demand Ontario shut down farms as COVID-19 cases soar among workers. CTV News. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-demand-ontario-shut-down-farms-as-covid-19-cases-soar-among-workers-1.5004897

Dunsworth, E. (2020, June 13). Canadians have farmed out tragedy to the migrant workers who provide our food. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-canadians-have-farmed-out-tragedy-onto-the-migrant-workers-who-provide/

Emmanuel, R. (2020, June 23). Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers. Ipolitics. https://ipolitics.ca/2020/06/23/migrant-advocates-call-on-feds-to-expand-ei-cpp-to-foreign-workers/

Grant, T. & Baum. K.B. (2020, June 20). Windsor medical officer won’t let migrant farm workers with asymptomatic COVID-19 back to work. Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-windsor-medical-officer-wont-let-migrant-farm-workers-with/?cmpid=rss&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Hennebry, J. L., & Preibisch, K. (2012). A model for managed migration? Re‐examining best practices in Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program. International Migration, 50, 19-40.

Office of the Premier. (2020, June 24). Ontario Takes Immediate Action to Stop COVID-19 Outbreaks in Windsor-Essex [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2020/06/ontario-takes-immediate-action-to-stop-covid-19-outbreaks-in-windsor-essex.html 

Rawal, S. (2020, June 30). Re: Public Health Guidance on testing and clearance [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ShailRawalMD/status/1277996991964946432/photo/1

Weiler, A. M. (2018). A food policy for Canada, but not just for Canadians: Reaping justice for migrant farm workers. Canadian Food Studies/La Revue canadienne des études sur l’alimentation, 5(3), 279-284.

Weiler, A. M., & McLaughlin, J. (2019). Listening to migrant workers: should Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program be abolished?. Dialectical Anthropology, 43(4), 381-388.