Tainted food: The politics of food production and its labour in Canada.

[first published for le frigo vert’s cookzine: From Fork to Farm – circa 2009]

There is a constant and understandable concern about the quality of the food that we eat. Frequent recalls due to contamination, the decreasing nutritional value of non-organic and industrially farmed food, and new studies discussing relative benefits or dangers of various products keep many of us on our toes. “Buy local” trends have also been on the rise as people believe that it is safer, more ecologically sound and ethical or at least neighbourly to support small, local producers. But the most profound issues of food politics go beyond ecological and health concerns to the consumer. Behind the food we consume is the taint of colonialism, racialized and gendered oppression, and exploitation of workers throughout the world.

At times, it is impossible to make choices that are affordable, nutritious and just; indeed it’s often impossible for consumers to find out about the conditions under which a particular piece of food is grown, picked, processed and served, but the more information we have, the more conscientious our choices can be. Just as we might commit to doing an herbal cleanse after a binge of take out meals and junk food, we can commit to fighting for workers’ rights even though we might consume the food brought to us by worker exploitation.

People need to move from personal health consciousness to holistic human consciousness,” says Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia (Justice) for Migrant Workers (J4MW)in an interview with me a few days ago.

Throughout Canada, all food industries, from farm to processing to food service rely heavily on migrant labour to do difficult and often dangerous work at a low cost to the employer yet a high cost to the worker. The majority of these workers are are not entitled to permanent status in Canada nor to many basic rights, such as minimum wage, overtime laws or basic health and safety coverage. In some cases, people participating in the program can, after a long period of time and the meeting of many requirements, apply (with no assurances) for landed immigrant status, but the criteria are so restrictive and the conditions so harsh that few workers make it that far.

Many people enter into these programs because of poor access to food and basic necessities in their homelands. These conditions, due to decades of imperialist exploitation through policies of global capitalism like the IMF and World Bank, force people into coming to places like Canada either under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or more specific programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP)and the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) that are designed to maximize profits for Canadian employers (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program pdf.).

Though there are differences with all these programs, what they have in common is that the workers essentially have few rights and no recourse. Minimum wage and overtime laws do not apply. People are often forced to work without breaks. Workers are housed by their employers with little, if any, privacy or safety. In the case of farm workers, access to food, clean water, and basic sanitation such as toilets is not even a given (J4MW, December 2, 2008). D

When asked about the treatment on such farms,Ramsaroop recalls something told to him by a worker when he first because involved in migrant worker justice. ‘To the local (white) people, we are invisible.’ That’s always stuck with me,” he said. “They’re straight up…and they all say the same three things: indentureship; slavery; treated as less-than human,”

In “The Real Dirt on Farm Work” by the Centre d’Appui (2006) a 69 year old worker has spent 20 years working 8 months per year through the SAWP program and “is still no closer to getting residency status or claiming the Employment Insurance benefits he’s paid into than the first day he arrived” describes his experience in similar terms:

[T]hey treat us like slaves”, he says of SAWP. “The Mexican government sells us and the Canadian government exploits us”

Such a system harkens back to the way in which Turtle Island came to be colonized. After mass theft of land and slaughter of indigenous people, European settlers cleared the land, started large-scale plantations, and maintained elaborate households, with slave labour.

It’s also interesting to note that, in addition to migrant labour, large-scale food production (from farms to abattoirs) relies heavily on prison labour. Prisoners have no labour rights, not even on paper. In Guelph, prison labour was used throughout most of the 20c for farming and slaughterhouse work firstly owned by the department of corrections, but eventually privatized with Better Beef. Slaughterhouse workers have higher overall mortality rates than the average worker.

Inmates at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, known as The Farm, work plantations of sugar cane, cotton and corn earn 4-20 cents an hour, sometimes working 17hours without a break. 85% of prisoners at The Farm will never leave, even being buried on prison grounds. Many of the prisoners working there today trace their roots back to slaves who worked the same fields during the antebellum, while many guards and administrators trace their heritage back to plantation owners from the same time

And while prison labourers have no avenues of escape from the toil, migrant workers are bound not only by having no other options, but by fear of physical and emotional violence, sexual assault, violence towards their families, and a constant fear of deportation.

Many of the requirements of the various programs are tied closely to work permits, which are often short-term and offer no real protection, as people find themselves fired and immediately deported without cause or notice, and forced to pay their own ticket home. And if a worker’s permit expires, or s/he leaves one employer, they must reapply for a permit which is both costly and involves time delays. Though permits can be issued within weeks, it often takes upwards of 6 months, and, in some cases, over a year. In the meantime, in order to make ends meet, these people have to take under the table jobs, which means no rights or protections at all. Additionally, because these jobs are not documented, they do not count towards requirements of the any program.

The majority of undocumented workers,” says Michael of the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, “are asylum-seekers waiting for their work permits. It can take 6 weeks, it can take more than 18 months, and people are not given any idea of which it will be, or why.” In order to live, they have no choice but to work under the table to make ends meet. Not only are they not protected by any labour laws, but they fear any complaint they make might reflect badly on their asylum review, that they might be pegged as “trouble-makers”.

Furthermore, undocumented workers may be here without status for a number of reasons: fleeing war, poverty, violence and discrimination in their homeland but not recognized as refugees by the Canadian state. In such cases, too, the workers have no legal rights, just a great fear of being exposed and deported if they stand up for their rights.

Michael describes conditions in meat packing plants around Montreal:
Quebecois workers leave the plant after their 8 hour day while the migrant workers remain. Male workers are kept for 10 hours and then sent home before the women, who are then moved to an area of the plant unmonitored by cameras, locked in and not allowed to leave the room until quotas are met.

And again, there is no recourse. Complaints of such conditions, and of abuse, or sexual harassment are commonly met with indifference at best. In many cases, the complainant is forced into resignation.

In some cases, migrant workers who have tried to organize for better conditions have faced fears beyond their own personal safety, when their families back home began to be threatened.

Canada relies on undocumented workers to fill labour shortages in “low-skilled” (read low-paid and unsafe) jobs—essentially jobs that anyone with status would refuse to take. Many foreign workers are actually highly-skilled professionals, but their accreditations are not recognized in Canada.

There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers across Canada without labour rights and in constant fear of deportation. Earlier this spring, the Canadian Boarder Services Agency conducted raids on migrant worker communities in southern Ontario, a tactic used against such communities periodically.

“The purpose of these raids is to heighten a climate of fear and insecurity in immigrant communities. These raids are part of Canada’s revolving door immigration policy where workers are used and disposed of with little or no rights”, says Mac Scott of the Law Union of Ontario (toronto:nooneisillegal, April 4, 2009).

Despite numerous public campaigns to regularize undocumented workers, conditions have only worsened, and the resources to fight them are scarce, with the larger unions and social movements failing to support this vulnerable population.

“Bluntly, it’s racism,” said Ramsaroop about the phenomenon. “It’s how we view Black bodies”, he continues, explaining that people have just come to accept that people from Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean—the vast majority of the population in the SWAP—having fewer rights and security is just part of the Canadian context.

Problems remain where workers are part of a union in that collective agreements tend to favour local workers over migrant ones. In cases of dismissal, foreign workers are often immediately deported, which makes filing grievances against wrongful dismissal all but impossible.

Earlier this decade, in Montreal, an organization called the Workers Solidarity Network formed to promote solidarity between workers, particularly precarious workers. On a few occasions, the network would take on plights of individual workers. In some cases, the network would confront the employer demanding redress for a particular problem, such as payment of wages owed (Star, October 19, 2005). Though these cases were successful, they are individual success stories within an inherently flawed system, and one that is unlikely to be reformed. [update: recently, the Immigrant Worker’s Centre in Montreal started an independent Migrant Cleaners Union, which has the potential to fight back in a way similar to the Workers Solidarity Network]

There have been a few gains won over the years, but these are always tenuous [now, in 2012, as the Harper government just passed the Refugee Exclussion Act, conditions for all people without citizenship are worse than ever]. For example, when farm workers in Ontario won the right to unionize, Rol-land Farms, Canada’s largest mushroom producer, fired nearly 200 migrants from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala and evicted them from company housing (Rol-land Farms Limited, 2009). Many had gone into debt to come to Canada through the SAWP program and were laid off after having completed only 4-8 months of a 24 month contract, meaning they were subject to deportation

Over all, there is little hope for justice in the near future regarding any of these conditions.

Ramsaroop describes the trend to be “a consolidation of power […] and accentuation of exploitation” and does not see that changing, though there does seem to be growing awareness and support.

What impact this support has on the conditions remains to be seen.

As Ramsroop puts it, “We can’t afford to be trendy. This cannot just be another sweatshop movement [that loses momentum and interest within a few years]. The movement has to be a sustainable and long term movement, fighting to ensure that workers have respect and justice here”

While being conscious of what you eat and where it comes from is one step towards this goal, getting behind the organizations and workers involved in the struggle is much more important. Consumer politics may show small shifts in the industry, but only large-scale movement will bring about any lasting reform.

Please visit the websites of PINAY, the Immigrant Workers Centre and Justacia 4 Migrant Workers for more information and ways of getting involved.





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J4MW (2009) Seasonal Agricultural Workers. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from www.justicia4migrantworkers.org/bProgramc/pdf/sawp.pdf

No One is Illegal. (2009). Over 100 Migrant Workers Arrested; Communities Demand Their Release. Retrieved May 6, 2009 from http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/node/278

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Rol-land Farms Ltd. Retrieved May 7th, 2009 from http://www.rollandfarms.com/english/index.html

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