The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series
A third migrant worker’s death in Ontario only highlights long-standing injustices in the agricultural programs that bring these workers to Canada
Written by Stella-Luna Ha
‘Migrant Workers’ may be a term that hardly rings a bell for many Canadians when they think about the local food system. This has changed recently though given that they are now in the spotlight as, for example, migrant workers were reported as representing 80 out of 404 new COVID-19 cases in Ontario on the first day of June alone. Approximately, 60,000 foreign workers arrive in Canada each year to work in farms or fisheries under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). As I was reaching the end of The Star article reporting on a third death of a migrant worker in Southwestern Ontario, I couldn’t help but to scroll down to the comment section. There I found two common themes with regard to the topic. One is a demonstration of the ‘whataboutism’ logical fallacy, as people respond to this loss of lives with a throw-their-hands-in-the-air exclamation: everybody dies, and a great many people have died as a result of COVID-19, so why should we prioritize mourning these workers? The second theme is a populist sentiment that points to the question: Why don’t we simply hire Canadians to save us these troubles in the agricultural system?
Why Should We Care About the Lives of Migrant Workers?
The sanctity of life is well established. To shift our focus away from the so-called ‘all lives matter’ narrative, however, is to give these powerless communities a voice and an opportunity to gain equity in the system that has been marginalizing and exploiting them for far too long. ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’ as the saying goes, and there is no point in diminishing the significance of migrant workers’ deaths by equating them with others that have occurred in the midst of the pandemic. Migrant workers have played a regular and important role in making Canada’s agricultural system work for decades now, and while they regularly face abuses at the hands of unscrupulous employers, the fact that they are now risking their lives to grow and harvest food in this country raises the significance of their struggles to an unprecedented level.
Why Can’t We Hire Canadian?
Imagine, you’re reading a hiring ad that involves working in a remote location away from home, receiving a pitiful salary, having no access to collective bargaining, and living in fairly crude accommodations. In addition, you may have poor access to sufficient and nutritious food during the quarantine you must endure before starting work, and your employer may engage in unfair gouging of your wages for meals and other costs. You know that the already back-breaking workload will only be exacerbated since there is a labour shortage due to COVID-19, and you’re also aware that PPE may be unavailable, and that physical distancing may be impossible to practice in the workplace. In addition, if you make any complaints about your working conditions, you may well be fired.
Would you take this job? Most Canadians would, and do, respond to this with a clear ‘No’. Although some Canadians have taken up farm work during the pandemic, due to other jobs being unavailable, many farm owners would probably not hire you for two reasons: (1) Your citizenship and rights make you less ripe for exploitation, and (2) You are inefficient and expensive. It is a myth that any person who is physically fit can take up farm work. The migrants who come to toil in Canada’s agricultural landscapes are skilled workers, typically having years of relevant experience, as well as technical know-how that allows them to repair farm machinery when needed, work effectively and efficiently with plants and livestock, and solve problems as they arise. In addition, this labour is coming to us at an incredible bargain. Would consumers likely be willing or able to pay double or triple the price of a head of romaine lettuce, and all of the other locally produced food, as a result of a ‘Hire Canadians Only’ approach?
A few words of pity or gratitude for migrant workers won’t solve this systemic problem. We need to push for legislative changes. Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero may have been one of the first migrant workers to lose his life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, generating increased coverage of the plight of these agricultural workers, but how many other unnamed Bonifacios might we have missed over the years?
The 60 Seconds Impromptu Series is a collection of brief reflections on food system developments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.