Cheap food has become a bedrock of our capitalist system. Since average hourly wages and the minimum wage have remained stagnant for decades, driving down the cost of necessities like food has been part of making people feel like they are able to survive.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare how the consistent pressure to reduce the cost of food production has impacted workers who are part of the large-scale food production industry. Due to the pandemic, many Canadians have seen how essential agricultural, food processing and grocery store workers are, and how horrible the working conditions in each of these sectors are.
While the work being done to produce our food has been deemed "essential," the lives of workers have been treated as disposable. This toolkit highlights work being done to demand changes to improve the lives of workers in the food production industry across Canada.
Migrant farm workers
Increasingly, the labour on Canadian farms comes through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) or migrant work. The rabble podcast network recently produced a story about the global movement to organize migrant farmworkers. To date, states and private companies have done very little to ensure the health and safety of migrant workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the conditions in which workers have long been forced to live and work. As of June 2020, over 1,000 migrant farm workers in Ontario had tested positive for COVID-19, three workers were dead and the Mexican government demanded and received assurances that there would be better protections for its citizens working in Canada.
In communities across Canada, caravans have been organized to demand change and to get essential personal protection equipment to workers. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and the Migrant Rights Network are just two of the national networks of local organizations supporting migrant workers. Find organizations near you and support their demands and support the workers. We have an opportunity to create change, and migrant farm workers need our support.
The food and beverage processing industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in Canada and the second-largest manufacturing sector in the country. Many of the workers in this industry were deemed essential and worked through the entire lockdown, especially the frontline workers in factories and processing plants.
Wages in the industry remain low. Workers in meat-packing plants and in other food-processing plants have faced outbreaks, and now the government is providing funds to help the food-processing industry improve conditions and increase the capacity of production. United Food and Commercial Workers Canada has developed a campaign to demand that this money be used to support workers, noting that the details of how the federal government will distribute the money "are still uncertain."
Food Secure Canada has also been leading the fight for reforms to improve access to sustainable healthy food for everyone in Canada. Learn more about their work to see how we can build long-term change in food production.
Grocery store workers have been hailed as national heroes during the pandemic, receiving applause and thank yous, mixed with some abuse as they work and try to keep customers safe.
At least 500 food-retail and pharmacy workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and several have died according to union estimates. Now grocery store chains are rolling back "hero pay." Stand with the Workers' Action Centre and workers' rights allies in your communities to demand higher wages, sick pay and other important rights for all low-wage, frontline workers who put their lives on the line to make sure we have our essential needs met during this crisis.
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