Migrant agricultural workers experiencing a food crisis

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A photo of food given to migrant workers. Image: Submitted by Justicia for Migrant Workers

When Deon Castello delivers a box of fresh produce to migrant agricultural workers working on two different Bradford, Ontario, farms, she makes sure she is out of sight of the farms' security cameras. 

She unpacks a cardboard box filled with fresh produce and leaves the fruits and vegetables by the side of the road in plastic bags. Castello corresponds her covert drop with the end of migrant workers' work days so the produce doesn't sit by the road for too long. After Castello leaves, the workers quickly collect the fresh food and bring it back to their bunkhouses unnoticed. 

Some Ontario farms are not allowing the delivery of fresh food to their migrant agricultural workers, according to Castello and two other organizers involved in the delivery of fresh produce to workers in need. This is despite the fact that these same employers are also not permitting workers to leave the farm to do their own grocery shopping, even well after workers have completed their mandatory two-week quarantine period. Instead, employers are shopping for them, but volunteers allege they are providing nutritionally insufficient and culturally inappropriate food. 

Volunteers and organizers did not wish to disclose which specific farms were disallowing fresh food to be delivered to workers to protect the workers themselves from reprisals. 

On Monday, The Guardian reported that two migrant farm workers in British Columbia had been fired and sent home after their employer discovered they had invited two migrant worker rights activists to their bunkhouse. In letting them go, the employer had the workers sign a letter stating they had broken the rules of the farm by interacting with people who did not work there. 

Castello, another volunteer Stephanie Mayell, and a one-time caravan of Justicia for Migrant Workers volunteers have been delivering food to farms in Bradford, Oshawa, Brantford and Windsor. 

FoodShare Toronto, in partnership with Justicia, has delivered around $10,000 worth of food boxes to migrant and undocumented workers both in the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding agricultural regions through FoodShare's COVID-19 emergency response good food box program, according to Jade Guthrie, a community food program coordinator at FoodShare and a volunteer organizer with Justicia.  

"I am very careful about how I deliver them," said Mayell, a volunteer with Justicia for Migrant Workers and a PhD researcher studying injuries to migrant workers. 

Mayell said that due to employers' restrictions about who is able to visit the farms during the COVID-19 pandemic, she drops the food off curbside after giving the workers advance notice of when she'll be delivering. 

The curbside drops also help her respect social distancing rules, but Mayell emphasized that employers' restrictions around not letting migrant workers interact with anyone from outside the farm or leave the farm themselves is in violation of workers' rights. 

"They feel like they're being punished," she said, adding that many of the workers she is friends with have drawn parallels between their own situation and prison. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Castello, also a PhD researcher studying the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), began buying fresh food for the workers she already had relationships with through her research, paying for it out of pocket. 

Castello said when the COVID-19 pandemic began and workers were in quarantine upon arrival, she witnessed one group of eight migrant farm workers forced to live off two loaves of expired bread and two rotisserie chickens -- a supply that was supposed to feed eight men over four days. 

"Some of the reports I've had in terms of the food that's being provided has brought tears to my eyes, in terms of both volume and content," Mayell said. She detailed some workers' accounts of being left with only two loaves of bread, two cartons of eggs, and a bag of oranges that was supposed to feed six workers for a week. 

"The consistent problem has been an absolute inadequate amount of food, and then the food that is provided is neither nutritious nor culturally familiar to workers who are making huge sacrifices this year to come here and [are] finding the conditions they're arriving in actually disconcerting," Mayell said. 

Mayell said she understands it shouldn't be falling to the employer to grocery shop for their workers in the first place. However, with workers constrained to their living quarters on farms, and no visitors allowed in, it is a burden of employers' own making. 

Before pandemic times, migrant farm workers were able to buy their own groceries and prepare their own food, though they generally relied on their employer to drive them into town once a week to do so. 

Even then, migrant farm workers, the labour force responsible for Canada's own food local food production had a difficult time feeding themselves. 

For instance, Gabriel Allahdua, a migrant agricultural worker in Ontario from 2012-2015, said that after his minimum wage had been split between remittances to his home country of St. Lucia, support for his family, and any travel costs or other work-related expenses his employers deducted from his wage, he was left with little money for food. Rice was cheapest, he said, so it was his staple. A banana or plantain -- fruit he ate often in St. Lucia -- became an occasional splurge. 

Sourcing the food boxes from FoodShare Toronto, Justicia volunteers have been delivering about 10-15 boxes a week. On one occasion, Justicia put together a caravan-style delivery, dropping off 75 boxes to farms in Simcoe County and in Brantford. In one instance, to get around visitor restrictions on farms, Guthrie said they dropped boxes off to someone who was already doing translation on the farm, and so was able to get the food boxes in the door. 

"FoodShare is pretty committed to trying to provide culturally relevant and reflective foods," Guthrie said. Often, she said, there will be mango, or chocho (chayote), a vegetable commonly found in the West Indies. 

Mayell said it's important that workers have culturally reflective food to ease their transition into life in Canada. Such food can ease workers' mental health and stress associated with coming here, but it can also prevent major gastrointestinal disruptions for workers, she said. 

It's a matter of practicality, too. Some workers have received boxed macaroni and cheese, but having never seen it before, did not know how to prepare it, "or really want to," Mayell said. 

Guthrie said Justicia is hoping to expand the food box deliveries to be able to reach more workers in need, specifically in those areas that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, like Windsor-Essex County. 

Workers in Windsor who have contracted COVID-19 and are being isolated in motel rooms are experiencing insufficient food, too. Photos taken by migrant workers show "kid-sized portions" said Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia in an email. The food is being left on the floor of the hallway for workers to collect. One picture shows a small portion of a chicken breast, a few bites worth of mixed vegetables and plain rice each. 

As for FoodShare and Justicia's partnership, Castello and Mayell agreed that it is making a significant difference for workers, and they hope it can be expanded to reach more people.

Guthrie said Justicia is aiming to raise $100,000 to be able to hire a driver, rent a truck, and send out over 100 boxes a week across Southern Ontario. 

Castello, Mayell, and Guthrie agreed that the food delivery system is a temporary solution to a deeper problem. 

"All food insecurity is rooted in poverty," Guthrie said. 

"With migrant workers, we've constructed them in such a position of vulnerability," she added, citing precarious immigration status, low pay, unregulated labour, and the fact that most migrant workers are racialized. 

Mayell said the food boxes are invaluable to workers at this point in time. 

"I've been doing things for workers in various capacities for a number of years, and I've never seen kale and cabbage bring so much happiness and joy to these workers as these boxes have done," Mayell said. 

"It feeds the human in them." 

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Submitted by Justicia for Migrant Workers

 
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