Labour of Love: Deep Dive
Across Toronto (and Ontario), we love our locally grown food. Much of this food is sown, seeded, picked and packaged by workers flown in every year from Mexico, the Caribbean and other countries in the Global South.
How do migrant farmworkers contribute to our lives?
Each year, up to 20,0001 seasonal workers travel to Ontario and thousands are here for one or two years at a time. In fact, approximately a third of all workers in Ontario’s agriculture sector are Temporary Foreign Workers2.
Our dependence on this group of people is so high, that their anticipated absence during the COVID-19 pandemic led to farmers and agricultural associations across Ontario issue warnings about the devastating projected impact to the country’s agriculture and food supplies. Some anticipated that in their absence over 90%1 of the vegetables and the fruits that are normally produced and harvested would not be grown. Eventually, exemptions were made to allow migrant farm workers to come into Canada. As one of the world’s largest producers of agri-food Canada also grows large amounts of products for export. In addition, migrant farmers are also the backbone of Ontario’s flower-growing and wine sectors.
What challenges are faced by migrant farmworkers in Ontario?
We are dependent on migrant farmers to meet the most basic of our human needs — food. Yet for the approximately two-thirds of a century that these workers have been returning to Canada this population has been treated as an afterthought:
- Most migrant workers who are brought in either through the SAWP (Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program), established in 1966 or the primary agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, are bound to their assigned employer, unable to freely change jobs. In most provinces, they are barred from joining or forming a union3.
- With their employment and immigration status effectively controlled by employers, migrants dependent on their minimum-wage Canadian incomes have a strong disincentive to speak out against abuses. Speaking out can mean becoming homeless (because they live in employer provided homes), being forced to leave the country and not being able to return ever in the future. And though many toil for decades in Canada, there are practically no way for agricultural workers to become permanent residents in the country that so desperately needs their labour3.
- On top of it all, migrant farm workers’ jobs and living situations are highly dangerous and sometimes even deadly. They are often housed in cramped, if not downright appalling, conditions – perfectly suited for the spread of infectious disease3.
- And this played out in the worst possible way during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Ontario recorded dozens of outbreaks on farms, 2,089 infections among migrant workers, and the COVID-19-related deaths of three migrant workers. Between January and October 2021, 1,102 migrant workers were diagnosed with COVID-19, and five more died. Overall, at least nine migrant agricultural workers died in Ontario between 2020 and 2021, several during quarantine; recent research indicates that most of these deaths could have been prevented had certain measures been taken. At least three more migrant agricultural workers have already died in Ontario in the first month of 2022, prompting calls for stronger action to protect this group4.
What can you do?
Migrant workers across Ontario are rightfully demanding full and permanent immigration status in order to be able to protect themselves. You can sign a petition in support of this demand at https://migrantrights.ca/status-for-all/
In addition, you can support the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. Please visit: https://migrantworkersalliance.org/
- Lupton , A. (2020, Mar 17). COVID-19 restrictions on migrant workers will be devastating, Ontario farmers warn. Retrieved Jul 19, 2020, from CBC/Radio-Canada: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/covid-19-restrictions-on-migrant-workers-will-be-devastating-ontario-farmers-warn-1.5500269
- Government of Canada. (2020, Apr 17). COVID-19 Disruptions and Agriculture: Temporary Foreign Workers. Retrieved Jul 19, 2020, from StatCan: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00002-eng.htm
- DUNSWORTH, E. (2020, Jun 13). Canadians have farmed out tragedy to the migrant workers who provide our food. Retrieved Jul 19, 2020, from THE GLOBE AND MAIL: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-canadians-have-farmed-out-tragedy-onto-the-migrant-workers-who-provide/
- Mayell, S., McLaughlin, J., Caxaj, S., Cole, D., Vosko, L., Basok, T., & Weiler, A. (2022, Mar 09). Ontario must do more to protect migrant workers. Here’s how. Retrieved from The Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TVO): https://www.tvo.org/article/ontario-must-do-more-to-protect-migrant-workers-heres-how