Sunday mornings at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto usually start off quiet, but transform by mid-morning into a hive of activity, where middlemen, food exporters, and supermarket chains reap huge profits off the under-priced produce handpicked by over forty thousand workers across the province.
This past Sunday, was a little different, as marchers from the Harvesting Freedom caravan picketed outside the terminal at 7am.
As morning wore on the chilly temperatures rose as did the protesters calls for radical reforms to Canada’s migrant labour system.
“Every fruit and vegetable in this Terminal has injustice stamped on them,” yelled Gabriel into the megaphone. Gabriel, like many of his fellow farmworkers, is from the Caribbean.
Their caravan travelled over a thousand kilometres in total, and will hit the 1500 KM mark by the time they reach Ottawa on October 2.
Their reception has been mixed at best. They have been moving from town to town since the beginning of September. Megan, a volunteer from Justicia, one of the core organisers of the campaign, notes that the further away from Leamington and Windsor (their starting point) they’ve travelled, the less receptive, even hostile, locals tend to become.
More than once they have encountered strangers who have blocked the marchers, threatened to call the cops on them, and yelled at them, somewhere along the lines of:
“Who are these foreigners? Why should they have rights? This [farmer’s market] is private property and we pay for our stalls, get out!”
The hostility, especially in smaller, more isolated districts and farmers’ markets, surprises her. Still the good outweighs the bad. The positive reception, even by some tourists, of their event at Niagara Falls yesterday was proof enough of that. Their call for legal recognition and equality for migrant workers resonates.
“We tell our children to eat their vegetables because it’s good for them. Migrant farmworkers put food on the table and nourish this country. Migrant caregivers take care of the next generation. Why don’t we deserve equal rights?” asked Gabriel.
At that point, two injured workers come forward, one from Latin America, the other from Japan. Each one has been threatened with deportation. On many farms, workers walk through pesticide-ridden fields and greenhouses with little to no physical protection. Already subject to low wages and arbitrary deportations, farmers who fall ill or suffer injuries are treated as disposable bodies in the agribusiness production mill.
Breaking through “an apartheid system”
Harvesting Freedom highlights the need not only for province-wide action on migrant labour rights, but also fundamental changes to the immigration system at the federal level. For the campaigners, the guarantee of legal status upon arrival for all qualified to work in Canada not only guarantees basic labour standards and human rights for migrant workers, but makes logical sense.
After all, migrants enter into jobs that most Canadians are unwilling to do. It isn’t like they are competing for Canadian jobs, as the mainstream discourse so often insists. Moreover all employers are required by law to present proof that they have exhausted all means to hire domestic or local labour before hiring foreign labour.
If these workers form so crucial a part of the Canadian economy, then surely the least Canada can do is to create a fairer system, one that guarantees their integration into a society that genuinely cares more for the welfare of workers than the profits of agribusiness.
Yet as of today, there are few, if any, mechanisms in place at the provincial level to ensure that farmworkers receive the minimum wage or adequate rest periods. Working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, many are lucky to have even eight solid hours of rest between one day and the next. Stripped of full legal status and the opportunity to apply for permanent residency, they are virtually second-class citizens, with no adequate labour protections and welfare services to allow them to live independently from their employers.
“How is this different from modern-day slavery?” ask Carlos, another farmworker from the Caribbean.
Denied basic rights guaranteed to the rest of the Canadian labour force, migrant workers are also subject to the “4 x 4” system, where caregivers and others employed in industries classified as low-skill, subsist on four year contracts, after which they are sent back to their countries of origin and prevented from returning to Canada for another four years.
The most precarious farm workers are subject to eight-month contracts. At the discretion of employers, contracts can be renewed, but this rarely happens. Adding to the stress and insecurity is the reality of physical separation from their families back home. Without permanent residency status, relatives of migrant workers are prevented from coming to Canada.
A parliamentary committee report on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which includes provisions on seasonal farmworkers, was released last week. The new Liberal administration has banked partly on the commitment to revise the programme, improving labour conditions for foreign workers by providing an easier track toward permanent residency status, even full citizenship, for immigrants.
Harvesting Freedom campaigners, however, point out that the consultation processes leading up to the parliamentary report lacked better representation of migrant workers themselves. The consultations have been dominated by the agribusiness lobby, with more critical voices brushed aside in one way or another. The release of the report has already been delayed twice this year.
Both the contents of the report and any action on the part of the Federal government, then, are likely to amount to more of the same, says Justicia organiser Tzazna Leal. Federal pressure has been light at best on the provincial governments of Ontario and British Columbia, where the agribusiness lobby has considerable clout. The lobby represents one of Canada’s biggest industries, which is also one of its most dangerous.
For Tzazna, the description of the migrant labour system as an apartheid one is apt. Not least because it stems in part from laws put in place during the era of plantation slavery in the United States, which was imported into Canada, with revisions. But Canada’s treatment of migrant workers is more of a split-headed beast: the country needs them and doesn’t want them at the same time. What employers really want is the guarantee that “you can be thrown back to your home countries once we’ve used you.”
While many unions have played a key role in the Harvesting Freedom campaign through financial contributions and statements of support, there’s certainly room for more creative forms of solidarity.
To some extent, unions have historically treated issues faced by migrant workers as external, even secondary, to the concerns of white domestic Canadian workers. At best, unions have tended to treat solidarity with migrant workers as an international issue, perhaps unwittingly reinforcing divisions that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Drawing links between different struggles, and pointing to transnational structures of inequality and injustice that affect all workers, may be one way of reviving solidarity that breaks past the multiple forms of oppression faced by this racialized underclass.
Speaking at the picket on Sunday, Tina Stevens, an indigenous rights advocate, noted the similarities between the plight of the First Nations and seasonal agricultural workers in terms of everyday experiences of both groups of people.
“We live here, and these people are merely invited guests. Sometimes they are scammed. Often they are offered a lot of lies. Lies of a better life. Lies that they tell these workers so they can fill the gaps, lies that they live with, along with the pesticides,” Stevens said. “This is what we have to live with. I thought slavery was dead.”