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COVID-19 outbreak at Ontario farm highlights deep problems in Canada's seasonal agricultural worker program

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Screenshot from video filmed from inside workers' living quarters at a farm near Leamington, Ontario. Image: Video Screenshot/j4mw/YouTube

A video that recently surfaced begins with a shot of a makeshift bed -- a thin sleeping pad resting on top of a wooden blue pallet on the ground. The camera pans to show dozens more of these beds in what appears to be some sort of warehouse or storage locker, spaced out in uniform rows and lining the concrete floor. Scattered around are signs of human life, out of place in this harsh industrial backdrop: a suitcase with the baggage tag still wrapped around the handle and a pair of running shoes tucked just under the edge of a pallet. A well-timed click of the pause button shows a person laying in one of these beds, trying to sleep.

The comments reveal the video was taken just a few hours outside of Toronto, in Leamington, Ontario -- the "Tomato Capital of Canada," thanks to the high numbers of the fruit produced there. It is also one of the biggest hot-spots for temporary farm workers brought in through Canada's seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP). What this video offers is a rare glimpse into the living conditions of migrant farm workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Back in mid-April, the federal government announced they would be allocating $50 million to the agricultural sector in order to support farm owners -- such as those in Leamington -- who bring in temporary workers through SAWP. The money was intended to help ensure safe living spaces and working conditions for migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, to cover expenses like hotel accommodations, groceries and health costs during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for workers arriving into the country. 

Yet in an open letter published on May 4, an anonymous migrant farm worker wrote about what was taking place at Greenhill Produce: "On Monday, April 27th, all 24 results were returned with a total of 13 Jamaicans test came back positive. We were told that by 4pm Monday afternoon, we will be separated. Enquires were made at approximately 4:30 Monday afternoon. We were told the Health Authorities will give instructions as to the separation."​

Another worker wrote in a statement: "The positive and the negative are living in the same house using the same utensils, same bathroom, doing everything like nothing is wrong." They go on to explain that their employers are refusing to purchase cleaning supplies for the workers to use to sanitize their bunkhouse.

Over the past two weeks we have seen viral outbreaks at a growing number of these farms across the province. Greenhill Produce in Chatham-Kent has been the primary subject of the media's attention, with over 100 workers infected as of May 21. 

This begs the question: With $50 million in federal support, why is this happening? 

The answer can be found within the deeply flawed structure of the SAWP program itself and its organizing values, which have framed the problem of COVID-19 as a threat to the Canadian economy, rather than to the lives of workers.  

Under the heel of power

The SAWP is employer-centric, favouring the financial interests of the Canadian farm industry over the rights of migrant workers. The program itself has been built on the backs of so-called "developing" countries -- bringing in migrant workers and deploying them to work on farms where they are often underpaid and reside in less than liveable bunkhouses. The structure of SAWP allows the Canadian government to exploit migrant labour as a way of cutting costs and making money -- a reflection of the state's predilection for imperialist capitalism. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the result of these state priorities is a government response primarily concerned with bailing out employers, as opposed to keeping workers safe.

Workers who come into the country through this program are bound to employers in a number of ways. In the literal sense, the restrictions in place around immigration through SAWP do not allow room for any labour mobility -- a worker's licence to remain in Canada hinges on a fixed contract with one employer. If a worker tries to move to another farm (which could happen for a number of reasons, including unsafe working conditions or racist employers) their already precarious immigration status is put at risk. Imagine interviewing for a new job because you were being harassed at your current workplace. Your manager finds out and threatens to have you evicted or deported. That is the reality migrant workers face -- employers actually have the power to kick workers out of the country.

On top of this, many employers use additional mechanisms to restrict workers' personal and social freedoms. Forcing them to live on-farm (often in cramped and unclean conditions), confiscating passports, surveilling working and living quarters, and implementing no-visitor policies are just some of the ways employers can impede upon the freedoms of workers bound to them.

The truth of the matter is that migrant farm workers live at the mercy of their employers, and although some might provide decent working or living conditions, the structures in place do not compel them to do so. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the oppressive dynamics between employers and workers; the government response has offloaded responsibility onto employers, which in turn yields more power. 

Money in the hands of employers -- with no mechanisms in place for transparency of the funding's allocation, no regulatory protections for workers and no enforced inspections -- has led to the reality we see in the aforementioned video. When we prioritize financial gain over public health and human rights, housing 30-plus people in a glorified meat locker becomes a viable choice over forking out a couple hundred dollars on hotel rooms.

The Canadian state: 'multicultural mosaic' or racial gate-keeping?

Just beneath the surface of almost every conversation about COVID-19 is an insidious narrative around race -- a fear of the "foreign" that has not necessarily grown significantly over the past few months (in other words, it has always been there), but has certainly become more visible. Within the SAWP, the pandemic has surfaced a lot of preexisting racial tensions, making them impossible to ignore. 

Racial hierarchies that subordinate Black and brown bodies are used as an organizing structure in Canada's immigration system; they determine who "deserves" to get past the gates, and who gets to stay. Those deemed unworthy of permanent status (but who still have valuable labour to offer) are funneled into the country on a temporary pass through SAWP -- and it is no surprise that these folks often hail from non-white, non-Western countries. In this way, race is a deciding factor in the way that migrant farm workers are socially constructed as "less than" in Canadian society.

On the farm, race is leveraged as a tool to isolate and divide workers. Employers often provide separate housing for groups of workers based on countries of origin, resulting in segregated living conditions. Keeping people apart is a time-tested tactic which works to limit communication and restrict personal relationships. It's much easier to ward off the possibility of collective action when workers are cut off from one another. 

These conditions bred the perfect storm for the COVID-19 pandemic to take hold of and overwhelm these farms. With the Canadian public unconcerned about these "less than" bodies, and workers unable to talk to each other about what is going on, employers are not being pressured to prioritize the health and safety of these workers. 

'Foreign threats'

Off the farm, workers are disconnected from the mostly white communities they work in. Before they even step foot in town, they have already been constructed as the racialized or foreign "other," precluding any potential sense of belonging. Suspicion of "foreign" bodies has been heightened as a result of the current pandemic, and this suspicion has certainly been extended to migrant workers in these rural towns. 

Media coverage of viral outbreaks on farms has framed the outbreaks as being the result of supposed bad actor migrant workers. The immediate speculation has been that some "unruly" workers have broken quarantine, rather than questioning the conditions in which these workers are being forced to live and work in. What these types of stories effectively do is criminalize migrant workers, positioning these "dangerous" and "foreign" bodies as the source of the virus. 

With this criminalization comes the implication that these bodies need to be heavily policed and controlled. Health officials in Norfolk County recently implemented a new measure: ID cards for migrant workers in small towns. Workers in town may be stopped and asked for their ID card -- which lists their name, employer and address -- a way for authorities to ensure emergency regulations are being complied with. In response to criticism on social media, the public health unit has defended the action, insisting it is a voluntary measure meant to help migrant workers who might not be fluent in English. 

As well intentioned as that may sound, the fact of the matter is the implementation of ID cards has historically been used as a means of surveilling and restricting the movement of racialized bodies. The tradition can be traced back to Canada's pass system -- an "informal" policy used in conjunction with the Indian Act -- which limited travel off-reserve for Indigenous communities (this system formed the basis of apartheid South Africa's pass laws which controlled the movement of Black bodies). More recently, we have seen carding practices used by the Toronto Police Service, disproportionately targeting Black men and collecting their personal information. 

Migrant workers are no strangers to racist, non-consensual data collection under the guise of so-called justice. In 2013, police in Tillsonburg, Ontario, mass-targeted Black and brown migrant workers, forcing as many as 100 workers to submit DNA samples for a criminal investigation. This is only one of the many horrifying cases in which migrant worker bodies have been criminalized -- labelled as dangerous -- based solely on the colour of their skin.

So, who is really being "protected" with these types of measures? The answer seems to be that it is the white community members of these small towns that are being shielded from the "foreign" other. This need to control the "dangerous" migrant body sheds some light on why officials are more concerned with inspecting individual workers than the working and living conditions they are subjected to. 

Harvesting freedom

A better and more comprehensive response needs to be developed quickly to manage these outbreaks -- the lives of so many hang in the balance. If we don't begin to address this as a human rights problem, migrant workers will keep being subjected to these deplorable conditions, and the case count will continue to rise. 

The workers themselves have made their demands clear. In their statement, a Greenhill Produce worker declared: "Migrant workers would like the Canadian government to respect us as essential workers, as our work and sacrifices not only help families from our home countries but the host countries as well." Workers need a wage boost, more regulatory protections, frequent facility inspections and cleanings, and access to PPE. 

Most crucially, though, the state needs to extend permanent status to these workers -- a request which migrant workers and advocate groups have been making for decades. Workers pay taxes and into social benefits programs, but cannot access these services without status. They return every year, proving that the work they do is not "temporary" but rather is a permanent and critical part of our economy. And perhaps most impossible to ignore, they put food on the tables of Canadian households. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased concerns around food security and supply shortages, has underscored just how essential these workers are. Permanent status must be extended in order to ensure their safety and well-being, particularly at a time when they are risking their lives working on the frontline. The Canadian government needs to recognize that migrant workers are not disposable -- the fruits of their labour are quite literally those that feed us.  ​

Jade Guthrie a food justice advocate, passionate about her work engaging communities through food. She sits on the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, and is a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, a volunteer-run political collective which strives to promote the rights of migrant farm workers.

Image: Video Screenshot/j4mw/YouTube.

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