Migrant workers who come to Canada from Mexico, and Caribbean nations under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) play a crucial role in producing the ripe tomatoes, sweet corn, and other fresh Canadian produce you buy in the grocery store.
But, as Chris Ramsaroop, organizer and activist with Justicia for Migrant Workers said, those workers are “erased from our daily understanding of food.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the already precarious and vulnerable conditions that migrant workers live and work under while in Canada have been exacerbated. Because of a concentrated number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among the migrant worker population, migrant workers are getting new media attention. However, Ramsaroop and Jade Guthrie, also an organizer with Justicia, say that none of this is new.
“The system isn’t failing, it was built to work this way. The way that we structure this program, the purpose was to exploit labour in a really cheap way that we benefit from,” Guthrie said.
Ramsaroop told rabble.ca that he has been keeping a log of the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among migrant agricultural workers. To date, he has counted 1,060 cases. Three migrant workers in Ontario have died after contracting COVID-19.
rabble.ca spoke with Ramsaroop and Guthrie about the conditions migrant workers experience, the structural causes, and what needs to happen next.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
First of all, can you describe the conditions migrant workers are living in right now?
Guthrie: In terms of the current situation, some are living in bunkhouses, others are living in what look like warehouses or storage lockers. There’s no natural light, no windows, no room to physically distance in these spaces. In some places, they’re sleeping on pallets of wood with just a camping roll as a bed.
Because some of these spaces aren’t supposed to be living spaces, they don’t have access to clean drinking water. We’ve seen a lot of mutual aid efforts to deliver bottled water to them and things like that because they can’t go out and get it themselves.
They don’t have access to do their own grocery shopping, which is what they would usually do. Before the pandemic, employers would bring farmworkers into town to do a grocery trip once a week. But with quarantine and being locked down in these bunkhouses, they’re relying on the employers to buy food. One of the folks in Justicia who is connected with a group of workers has been delivering food boxes to them like veggies and fruit. She said that before she was delivering, all they were getting from the employer was a couple loaves of bread and a few rotisserie chickens a week.
These living conditions aren’t being properly sanitized. They’re not even providing workers with cleaning supplies. That’s another thing they can’t go out and buy for themselves. One worker told us that between 40 of them they have a bottle of bleach they try to use to clean up so they can stop the spread of the virus, but obviously that’s not enough.
Ramsaroop: I want to contextualize. I think a lot of media messaging has been about the flaws in the [SAWP], but I think it’s important for audiences to understand that the program is working how it’s supposed to work. The pandemic only highlights what we as a community and we as activists already see as structurally flawed. The program is operating and working in the best interests of the employers. Employers, at all costs, want to make sure production is not halted. The program facilitates that.
You’ve both previously written about heightened levels of surveillance and new methods of control over workers’ movements amidst the pandemic. Is this something that’s totally new or have migrant workers always experienced this on some level?
Ramsaroop: There’s always heightened forms of surveillance, but it definitely seems that during the pandemic, it has been weaponized to further curtail worker’s movements in the community.
Right now, most workers don’t leave the farms. And we know that workers are receiving threats. They’ve been told [they] can’t leave the farm. That there will be repercussions. [They’ll] be sent back home or terminated if [they] do try to leave the farm. This is even post-quarantine period. Workers who have been here since January, and they weren’t subjected to the quarantine period were told that they can’t leave the farms either. We don’t know if anyone has been sent home, yet as a result of it. But these threats are having an implication on worker’s lives if they do try to leave the farms.
It’s [framed] as being in their best interest, to protect themselves from the pandemic. But it’s really to control and curtail their movements. I think once again, it goes back to this idea of the employers trying to ensure their production continues. They’re trying to use this as a way right now to control the lives of workers. The program enables workers to be seen as property.
Guthrie: The surveillance aspect has always been around, there’s always this criminalization of migrant bodies. I think there’s something to be said about how the towns they work in are white rural towns; they’re very much othered in these spaces. It’s clear that they’re not from Leamington or Brantford when they’re moving around the space there. There’s this case around a woman who was assaulted in Tillsonburg, Ontario, in 2013. During the investigation they lined up Black and brown migrant workers who worked on farms in that area and forced them to submit DNA. These are folks who [didn’t] really have access to information about their rights, so they didn’t know that they didn’t have to do that.
What are the power dynamics at play that have created these conditions for migrant workers?
Guthrie: The way our policies around the SAWP program are written, people don’t have a pathway to get permanent status here. When you have such precarious immigration status, the stakes are so much higher.
It’s twofold. The agricultural system specifically is not fully covered in the [Employment Standards Act]. There’s industry specific exclusions like minimum wage, vacation time, overtime, maximum hours you can work in a day, break time. All of that stuff doesn’t apply to agricultural workers which is obviously really bad for anyone working in the agricultural industry, including Canadians.
Then we see the really oppressive power dynamics in the relationship [workers] have with the employers, where [employers] have this ability to deport them whenever they want. On the farms, workers are segregated. I’ve seen white bathrooms and Black bathrooms before on farms. And then almost every farm I’ve been to, there’s a Jamaican bunkhouse, Mexican bunkhouse, Guatemalan bunkhouse, etc.; workers are really discouraged from interacting with workers from other countries. And this is very much a mechanism to prevent anyone from organizing. From the very top, there’s so many levels of these oppressive power dynamics that really marginalize these workers.
What needs to be done to improve conditions for migrant workers, immediately but also in the long term?
Ramsaroop: All of us agree with status upon arrival. This has been our demand for 20 years. We’re saying workers shouldn’t be tied to employers and they should have the ability to live here should they choose to. And that our immigration laws can’t be used to divide workers. At the provincial level, we’ve got to make sure that agricultural workers have the full protection [through the ESA], which they currently don’t have.
Is that a long term goal, or are they more immediate things that need to be prioritized?
Ramsaroop: (Laughs). No more long-term goals and short term goals. This is stuff from 20 years ago. This has to happen now.
Is it possible to have any kind of migrant worker program that is fair, just and equitable?
Guthrie: I think the only way a migrant worker program can exist in an anti-oppressive way is if it’s based on status upon arrival. If you aren’t giving people permanent status when they’re coming to the country to work and contribute economically and be a very permanent part of our system here, it means they’re not able to access full labour protections; they’re not able to access social services, which they pay taxes for. We’re essentially institutionalizing vulnerability and precarity in that way. So unless there’s full status at the core of any migrant program, then it can’t be equitable.
Chelsea Nash is rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.