Tom Zizys rightly notes that Ontario has pursued a “local food policy” aimed at promoting healthy, locally sourced food. But, for over fifty years, that “local” food has been produced by racialized workers from the Global South who, by law, work under restrictions that would be impossible to impose on local workers. Rather than importing our food, we import our labour.
Moreover, Canada’s goal of becoming a world leader in agriculture by expanding our local food production is contingent on expanding the scope and scale of precarious temporary migrant agricultural labour in Canada.
This vision does not include an expansion of rights for the migrant workers doing the labour.
Roughly 48,000 migrant agricultural workers were granted work permits in Canada in 2017; about half work in Ontario. Over 22,000 of the migrant farm workers in Ontario are from Mexico, Jamaica, and the Caribbean. They arrive under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and work for up to eight months each year. The rest are migrant farm workers from around the globe — the Philippines, Thailand, China, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, and elsewhere. These workers typically pay thousands of dollars in predatory “recruitment” fees — which are unlawful in Ontario — to receive work on renewable 12-month work permits under the low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Employers hiring migrant farm workers select which country to hire from and can specify if they want male or female workers — a process which is at odds with the Human Rights Code. The work permits restrict workers from working for anyone other than the employer named on their permit. They also typically live on the property of, or in housing provided by, their employer. They are hired on standard contracts which they do not have an opportunity to negotiate. They can be terminated and deported without a hearing. They are frequently deported if sick or injured. Their continued employment is dependent on maintaining good personal relationships with their employer.
The laws which structure the labour migration programs create an extreme power imbalance, and the exploitative working conditions which result have been thoroughly documented for decades.
Yet, the “bad job” framework persists. One story we tell ourselves — to give us comfort with the status quo — is that farm work is dirty and dangerous work that “Canadian’s don’t want to do.” So we need migrant workers.
But this story ignores that, over the past century, we have made and sustained political choices to exempt agricultural work from core labour standards. It is these choices that have depressed conditions and wages in the sector and created farm work as a low-wage, low-rights zone.
Whether local or migrant, most farm workers are excluded from basic employment standards like minimum wage, hours of work, daily or weekly rest periods, time off between shifts, eating periods, overtime pay, public holiday pay, and vacation with pay. Ontario is also the only province in Canada that wholly denies farmworkers the right to unionize under the Labour Relations Act.
In essence, we have chosen as a society to treat agriculture as a “sacrifice zone” that is purported to be unusual or “exceptional” in some way and so is excluded from the rules, rights, and protections that apply in the “normal” economy. This sacrifice zone is constructed so that it is permanently staffed by migrant workers with precarious temporary status. The differential treatment of these migrant workers then feeds a vicious circle that normalizes and entrenches a two-tier labour market.
Until we directly confront the political choices we’ve made for how to structure labour in our “local food economy,” the reality of bad jobs will continue to leave a bad taste in our mouth.
Originally published by the Metcalf Foundation.