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Reality Check 101 Rethinking the impact of automation and surveillance on farm workers




Chris Ramsaroop


Chris Ramsaroop is a founding member of Justicia for Migrant Workers. This is the third blog post in our Labor Day series, Dispatches from the Field, which takes a workers’ perspective on the way technology is reshaping work.

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Data & Society Research Institute

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Technology has significantly altered many jobs along the food chain, starting with agricultural work. However, the discussion has mainly focused on the merits of innovation for employers, with little analysis of the implications for workers — aside from the assumption that workers are simply being replaced. From threshing machines to driverless trucks to automated check stands, automation and technology is touted as making our lives easier all along the food chain. The supposed benefits include cutting down the cost of labor, helping to grow and deliver food in fast efficient ways, and making food and its production cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally sustainable. However, in an industry where issues of race, gender, and immigration status intersect, automation has a disproportionate effect on migrant workers of color and immigrant communities who work in these precarious jobs.
Migrant workers and automation in Canada
In Canada, the country is seemingly betting big on automation. In July 2019, the government made a nearly CA$50-million investment into the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) to “accelerate automation and digitization in Canada’s agricultural sector.” This funding is part of the CA$108.5 million the network received previously. Last year, the federal government also announced a CA$50 million funding competition to advance automation and digital technology. This announcement was preceded by the Canadian greenhouse industry receiving CA$5 million targeted to advancing robotics in greenhouses to harvest “cucumbers at their perfect ripeness, gently picking the vegetables and preparing them to be shipped out to consumers.”
Canada’s Liberal party government claims that the funding “will build on Canada’s strengths in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and precision agriculture to develop exportable farming solutions that will reduce reliance on temporary (precarious, seasonal) labor, increase global competitiveness, and improve profitability for Canadian farmers.” While the industry supports and benefits from this push towards automation, they are clearly not working to reduce their reliance on precarious, seasonal labor at this time.
There has been little discussion on how automation and surveillance will negatively impact the lives of these workers and their families.
Canadian farmers want more technology, but also the same or higher levels of migrant workers. Currently, migrant workers account for 17% of the workforce. In 2017, agricultural lobbyists, the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC), called for expanding access to Canada’s migrant worker scheme (the Temporary Foreign Worker Program) to meet the estimated need for 123,000 laborers by 2029. Currently, CAHRC claims that the labor shortage is costing the industry almost CA$3 billion annually.
Recently, Canada’s unelected Senate reinforced the agricultural industry’s claims and called for easier access to migrant workers. These calls either ignore the impact of automation (in terms of replacing workers with machines) or contradict the assumed benefits of automation, like the increase in “skill level” of certain jobs. Employers claim that advances in automation and robotics will not lead to job loss and are only, “creating more capacity for human workers to focus on other tasks.” In either case, there has been little discussion on how automation and surveillance will negatively impact the lives of these workers and their families. And there has been no suggestion that migrant and immigrant workers of color are being trained to take up the higher-skilled positions that will be created through greater automation.
Greenhouse workers
One place where we see this playing out is in the greenhouse. While not necessarily seen as a new technological invention, greenhouses are controlled environments where production yields are advertised as seven times higher than traditional field crops. Across Southwestern Ontario’s rural landscape, greenhouse production has expanded exponentially over the last two decades driven by advances in technology. A recent series in Canada’s national paper, the Globe and Mail, profiled one grower and his farm’s recent advances courtesy of automation and AI. Harvesting, picking, weed control, mowing, and other tasks have gone high tech, while the employer is preparing to make significant investments into advanced lighting systems, sensors, and robotic arms.
While there is a popular perception that farms feed local communities only, greenhouse agriculture in Canada is also oriented for export production to the United States, Mexico, and beyond. Farmers are hoping to cash in big through their investments in greenhouse technology, but it is much more costly for farmers to grow inside greenhouses compared to field crops. However, these higher costs are offset by the ability to grow and profitably export crops year-round under the controlled conditions within greenhouses. Moreover, the legalization of marijuana has led to greater demand for greenhouses, as already existing greenhouses are repurposed for cannabis production and newly built greenhouses shift away from vegetable and fruit production.
Migrant workers describe entire greenhouses that used to employ dozens of men reduced only to a handful of workers as a result of automation.
Lion, a former migrant worker, is one of the many eyes and ears of the farm worker community. Over a drink and a game of pool, Lion and other workers shared their experiences of how their work is changing. Migrant workers describe entire greenhouses that used to employ dozens of men reduced only to a handful of workers as a result of automation. Lion emphasizes the employers’ need to increase productivity as the main thrust for increasing automation, but a secondary purpose is the increased control over the labor force through the greater surveillance provided by these new technologies.
Surveillance technologies are utilized to regiment workers to determine their pace at work and their production levels, much like what we see in warehouses. Some employers require workers to wear smartwatches and use fingerprint technology to enter greenhouse facilities. Workers express their concerns regarding workplace surveillance and privacy issues with respect to the use of smartwatches and fingerprint technology. Sandra, a farm worker, echoes these concerns. She says her company has not shared any policies with workers about the data collected through fingerprints. “That’s what scares me, too, sharing information about my fingerprint. That’s not good. That’s my personal information.” Sandra also raises critical questions about when a worker is no longer employed or is terminated — what happens to that data, how long is it kept, and who is it shared with? Are employers sharing this data with border agents, other employers? No one seems to know. In marijuana greenhouses, surveillance cameras are everywhere, capturing everything that farm workers do in the workplace. Cameras are implemented so that workers do not steal the cannabis buds. Housing is also heavily surveilled, with workers describing cameras being placed inside and outside the bunkhouses where workers live.
Closely connected to surveillance is the rise in technologies that track workers’ pace of work and their productivity. These include computer/mobile tracking, GPS technologies, and computerized time clocks. Proponents advocate that these technologies are needed to keep their workforce honest, erase waste, ensure efficiency, and address a long standing concern of “time theft” where workers are alleged to lie about their productivity. Yet farm workers tell a different story. For example, computer time sheets are known to miscalculate wages and create the conditions where wage theft occurs.
Miguel, a farm worker organizer, also disputes the claims made by the industry. He says that workers at his farm report regular miscalculations and errors when using time machines. He says that there are “always mistakes. When you put into the computer the number of the card, the cards are read incorrectly,” which affects workers’ pay. Sandra agrees that workers often complain about the rate of pay and whether workers are receiving proper rest periods, lunches, and compensation as a result of the increasing automation of greenhouses.
Workers also recount stories of robots breaking down and slowing down production. According to Lion, farm workers work at a faster pace than robots because the “robot works at a specific speed, but the humans race against one another to see who could pick the most crops in the quickest time.” Highlighting the differential speed of workers and robots, and the disciplining effect of piece-rate work, Lion astutely observes that while robots cannot be penalized for their slow pace, agricultural workers can. Workers often describe being punished for working too slowly. Often, this means being sent home to the bunkhouse and told not to return to work for a period of a day to a week, or receiving a more severe punishment of termination, deportation, and blacklisting from Canada’s migrant worker schemes.
Employers and the government are willing to invest millions into automation and modernization, but there has not been a corresponding push to monitor, modernize, and strengthen labor protections or to eliminate the precarious labor market that is inherent in agriculture. Workers continue to report dangerous working conditions, even in modern greenhouses, while others experience wage theft and pay discrepancies despite the use of sophisticated software capable of complex computations. While economists project a labor and skills shortage, migrant laborers are not being trained for those skilled tech jobs. Rather, the benefits of automation only accrue to employers — to increase efficiency and improve yield.
While economists project a labor and skills shortage, migrant laborers are not being trained for those skilled tech jobs.
Meanwhile, workers of color do not have the ability to enter Canada with permanent resident status for themselves or their children, who might also end up working in these same permanently temporary agricultural programs. Whether it is Canada, the United States, or any other jurisdiction, discussions related to race, gender, and immigration status are not part of today’s discussion regarding advances in technology and automation. Before hailing the wonders of automation, let’s first consider the well-being of those farm workers who put food on our table. Are their voices included in the conversation? What will be the impact on them and their families? And how do we ensure that innovation and change also lead to labor protections that lift the standards for all workers?
Chris Ramsaroop is a founding member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, a grassroots collective of community, labor, and migrant activists who organize with migrant workers for change. Alongside his organizing work, Chris participates in the executive of Asian Canadian Labour Alliance.

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Economic sectors

General farm workers

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Statistics on work and life conditions

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Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Canada, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Nova Scotia, and National relevance