Farmworkers and migrant rights activists have reached the midpoint of a month-long caravan they call Harvesting Freedom. Calling for permanent legal status for the tens of thousands of farmworkers across the country, they began their march in Windsor and Leamington, aiming to reach Ottawa by October.
At the heart of the campaign is Justicia or Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW), a volunteer-run and truly transnational collective of activists from Mexico, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Latin America. For over a decade, Justicia’s small team of organizers have made migrant farmworkers, primarily in Ontario and BC, a focus of their efforts.
Harvesting Freedom builds on the experiences of two “pilgrimages to freedom”, starting in 2010, followed up by another caravan in 2011. The first was in part led by Filipino and Thai farmworkers, but the second involved a broader cross-section of the migrant worker community, including participants from the Caribbean and Latin America.
50 years of exploitation
This year, the caravan commemorates 50 years of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). The march also anticipates the release of a parliamentary committee report on the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) this week. In addition to the Caregiver Program, the TFWP and SAWP together form a trinity of sorts at the core of Canada’s labour import strategy. Each attracts migrants from different parts of the world, funnelling foreign workers into various provinces and sectors within the Canadian labour market. The product of bilateral arrangements between labour-exporting countries and the Canadian government, SAWP alone brings over 30,000 low-wage migrants a year to work on farms across Canada.
But after over fifty years of its implementation, resistance to the program has exposed the dark underbelly of Canada’s agriculture industry.
In what Justicia’s Chris Ramsaroop has called an “apartheid system” of labour, many migrant farmworkers are bound to a single employer, denied basic labour protections like maximum hours, and are forced to stay in cramped bunkhouses.
The plight of temporary foreign workers is made worse by their de facto invisibility from labour protections that ought to cover all workers regardless of where they come from. Workers who enter the country as seasonal farmworkers are, by and large, barred from forming or joining a union. Without the basic labour rights derived from permanent residency and union representation, thousands will continue to exist in a legal limbo that relegates them to a second-class workforce.
As a minimum demand, a major goal of Harvesting Freedom is to press for permanent residency status for all migrant workers with a pathway to full citizenship. Organizing around that goal, however, hasn’t been easy.
Harvesting lessons for the labour movement
Justicia was founded by a group of Latin American activists following the 2001 Leamington wildcat strike of farmworkers. Since then they have reached thousands of workers, though much of the day-to-day organising is kept alive by a small group of committed activists.
They have been compelled to be flexible and creative about organising alongside a class of workers even more vulnerable and precarious than the rest of the Canadian labour force.
Justicia organizers are often forced to meet farmworkers in restaurants, malls, and, cafes. Conventional workplace organising is next to impossible given the tight surveillance farm owners maintain over migrant workers. The unwillingness of workers themselves to risk being caught organising among themselves, given the threat of deportation, makes the task even more daunting.
Justicia has formed ad hoc networks with families, unions, and organisations in their home countries to arrange for health services or other forms of support. Workers who fall ill can be forced out of their jobs and sent home. They have also worked with legal clinics to assist farmworkers with their paperwork, or to defend those who face deportation.
Since migrant farmworkers subsist on three to six month contracts, rapid turnover rates require constantly reaching out to a fresh crop of workers. Justicia’s small pool of volunteer activists can only do so much.
As if that hasn’t been difficult enough, they have had to adjust frequently to changing times. In recent years there have been new waves of low-wage migrant workers brought in by changes to the TFWP and SAWP under the Harper government. This means organising more people of more diverse faiths, languages, and cultural backgrounds, from an even wider geographic scope.
A reflection of this is the fact that they’ve dropped the Spanish-sounding Justicia in favour of Justice for Migrant Workers, which organizers now use more often.
The Harvesting Freedom campaign itself has been a test of Justicia’s organisational capacities. It’s also been something of a logistical nightmare, but well worth the pain, according to Justicia organizer Tzazna Leal, who is originally from Mexico.
Unions, from CUPE-Ontario to the USW, have been key supporters of the campaign, although organizers like Tzazna would like to see help beyond statements and financial contributions. What such support would look like remains unclear, but they have received particularly strong support from church groups and Indigenous and racialized workers who mobilise in informal committees and caucuses within a number of union locals.
On the other hand, they have received some negative feedback. More than once during the caravan they have been “escorted out” by the police in public spaces. For instance, in St. Jacobs farmers’ market the police were called to kick them out at the behest of locals uneasy about seeing racialized farmworkers standing up for their rights.
Despite the challenges, it has been inspiring to see the campaign bring together diverse communities of solidarity across the racial divide. For Tzazna, action by the farmworkers themselves offers hope of overcoming an entrenched, if subtle, racism that has thrown a mirror onto Canada’s self-image as a defender of human rights and decent work compared to its neighbours to the south.
This weekend, Harvesting Freedom will be arriving at Hamilton before moving on to the Queensway Ontario Food terminal in Toronto. After a few more stops, the caravan reaches Ottawa, their final destination, on October 1.