Anelyse Weiler, Janet McLaughlin, and Donald Cole
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To keep her job, Maria had to hide her pregnancy from her farm employer, work with chemicals and do heavy-lifting, and forgo prenatal care. Despite paying into Canadian EI for nine seasons, this single mom will be denied any benefits when she gives birth to her second child in Mexico this winter. Maria worries how she will feed her growing family.
Maria’s story shows how Canadian food, labour, and immigration policies create unique forms of food insecurity for low-wage migrant farm workers. She joins some 50,000 people who come to Canada each year through agricultural streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Farm workers are “tied” to one employer and, unless they marry a Canadian, in most provinces they can never become permanent residents. By design, the program amplifies the power disparity between bosses and workers. It makes workers afraid to complain about bad working and housing conditions, sexual harassment, or injuries because they might get fired and deported, losing the chance to continue supporting their families from afar.
Yet in the lead-up to a national food policy, a new federal government Standing Committee report is oddly silent about the systemic inequities faced by low-wage migrant workers in Canadian industries, such as farming, meat packing and fast-food.
One of the report’s core recommendations is “to ensure sufficient labour is available in the agriculture and agri-food sector, including through the temporary foreign worker[s] program to attract and retain talent, with a possible path to permanent residency.”
It’s unclear if such “pathways” refer to low-wage streams. The stated purpose of Canada’s national food policy, which Ottawa will unroll in the next six months, is to provide a guide for decision-making across the food chain to support a healthy economy, society, and environment.
Reducing barriers to growth for Canada’s domestic and export food markets is a theme throughout the report. As we demonstrate in a study in International Migration, powerful agribusiness voices have declared Canada’s farming sector can only remain competitive by hiring racialized, non-citizen workers whose rights and freedoms are severely circumscribed compared to Canadians.
Pitting Canadian food security agricultural viability against the rights of migrant workers is a false ethical choice. While many agricultural businesses’ bottom lines currently depend on deportable workers, there are far more sensible paths for moving food from field to fork.
Farmers’ voices aren’t unanimous when it comes to Canada’s migrant labour schemes. Some are listening to workers who courageously tell their stories and demand change. The National Farmers Union (NFU), for instance, has thrown its weight behind migrant worker-led movements for justice.
Rather than calling for a pathway to permanent residency, which leaves workers vulnerable to abuse if employers exploit their desire for permanent residency, the NFU endorses permanent immigration status on arrival.
Rather than “punching down” and lobbying for continued access to workers with weak bargaining power, we can “punch up” against policy regimes and trade agreements that encourage race-to-the-bottom labour standards.
To its credit, the government standing committee’s report gets some things right. It champions “the right to food” as a guiding principle for Canada’s national food policy. Migrant workers in Canada’s food system are often employed under conditions that violate International Labour Organization standards for decent work.
Migrant farm workers’ food security is undermined by a precarious income and lack of access to social benefits. Given that decent work has been recognized as a key dimension of the right to food, Canada’s national food policy can leverage this guiding principle to ensure healthy, equitable and dignified livelihoods for all workers.
Instead of treating migrant workers as faceless units of labour, Canada’s national food policy must recognize migrant workers as vital members of our urban and rural communities. To do this, the federal government can provide open work permits, permanent immigration status on arrival, and equal access to social benefits.
A proposed national food policy council to help the government implement the new food policy needs to include strong representation from workers who are at the heart of Canada’s food system.
As Maria’s story shows, migrant workers are deeply affected by current Canadian policy choices around food security, labour, and migration.
So are the lives of anyone who eats here. By enacting a national food policy that prioritizes dignified migration and decent work, we can nurture a food system that allows everyone to thrive over the long-term.
Anelyse Weiler is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto and a 2015 Trudeau Scholar.Janet McLaughlin is an associate professor of Health Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Project.Donald Cole is a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
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Agriculture and horticulture workers
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- Geographical focuses
Canada, Ontario, Alberta, México, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Nova Scotia, and National relevance
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