Reflections on the past, present and future of migrant farm labour in Canada

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If xenophobic backlash can have a silver lining, the anti-migrant worker uproar of the last year has certainly had one. 

Stories of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) replacing Canadians in a number of sectors have rallied nativist forces, prompting calls for the expulsion of TFWs and the preferential hiring of Canadians over migrants. But this black mark on public discourse has been accompanied by a concurrent upsurge in attention paid to the exploitation of TFWs and the efforts of workers and advocacy organizations to end these injustices, giving many Canadians -- for perhaps the first time -- an education in the world of migrant labour in Canada.

A key message of such organizations has been a call for full immigration status for all TFWs, and it is difficult to argue against this being the central plank of a platform for migrant justice. This is particularly the case for Canada's 30,000-plus temporary foreign farmworkers, who are barred from unionizing in Ontario and Alberta, and can be deported by employers with scarcely any oversight.

It is hard to imagine migrant farmworkers, staring up at this towering menace of oppressive regulations, organizing en masse to improve their conditions. Only permanent immigration status and everything that comes with it -- in short, the right to not be summarily deported -- will allow workers to enjoy the fruits of freedom, including collective organization. 

But full immigration status is not enough. The precarious state of migrant farmworkers is not just an immigration problem; it is also a labour problem, and more broadly a problem of capitalist agriculture. Activists must strive not only to transform immigration policy, but more ambitiously to transform farm labour in Canada.

A look back into the history of Canadian agricultural labour will help to illustrate the point.

Following the Second World War, Canadian farmers found themselves in a familiar position: short of the low-wage, flexible workforce they depended on in order to profitably raise their crops. The federal government had previously devised various schemes to fill this labour gap: everyone from orphaned British children to Depression-era unemployed to interned Japanese-Canadians had been called on, with varying degrees of coercion, to put food on Canadian tables.

In 1946, as described by Vic Satzewich, the government came up with a new batch of recruits: Polish war veterans. Just over 4,500 were admitted to Canada as agricultural labourers, where they were contractually bound to their assigned employer for two years before receiving the full rights of permanent residence. The program was predictably rife with abuse, and the Polish immigrants complained bitterly of their treatment.

We typically look back on stories like these with shame, but from the purview of a migrant farm worker in 2014, the Poles could seem to have had a positively rosy deal. Today's migrant can toil in Canadian fields for two years or 20, and never be eligible for permanent residency.

So what happened to farm labour after the Poles got permanent residence? Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the veterans sought work in higher paying, less exploitative industries. And growers, again helped by the state, turned to new sources of cheap, vulnerable labour, including the Caribbeans, Mexicans and other TFWs who remain the crucial component of Canada's horticultural workforce. 

In the end, despite the abuses, the Polish veterans got what they wanted: permanent residence and full labour rights. But it did nothing for those who would inherit their place in Canadian agriculture as the next groups of exploitable workers. Their TFW successors today find themselves in an even more oppressive farm labour system, in which complaints or ill-health often lead to deportation, and from which they can never obtain permanent residency. 

As temporary foreign labour becomes an ever-more-prominent issue, changes to the programs beyond those announced in June seem increasingly likely. More mainstream actors have joined advocates in calling for wider access to permanent residence for TFWs, including Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and even a powerful corporate lobby group.

As success on this front begins to appear possible, we must ask: is this enough?

If permanent status is not combined with a dramatic overhaul of farm labour, including collective bargaining rights for all, massive pay increases and health and safety regulations brought in line with other sectors, then the agricultural TFW programs will simply be replaced by the next great schemes for providing exploitable labour.

Transforming capitalist agriculture in Canada is a much taller task than achieving permanent residence for TFWs, and it will necessarily involve mass organization of farmworkers, advocacy campaigns and legal and legislative efforts. It will require a reformulation not just of farm labour, but of the entire food economy, which compels farmers to produce food at the lowest possible cost, ensuring low wages and poor conditions for workers. 

As permanent residence becomes increasingly achievable, farm labour activists would do well to remember bigger goals and bolder dreams, and to begin developing strategies to make them a reality. A better harvest is a long way off, but the seeds of change must be planted now.

Edward Dunsworth is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. He coordinated literacy programs for migrant farm workers in the nonprofit sector from 2009-2013. His Master’s thesis from Queen's University examined the history of tobacco farm labour in Ontario.


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