Agriculture – Canada

The exploitation of Mexican and Caribbean migrant workers in Ontario’s agricultural sector

Miriam Puttick

Since its founding, Canada has relied heavily on racialized and gender-segmented workforces to fulfil labour needs in core sectors of economic production. Today, the agricultural sector is one of the industries in which this pattern can be seen most clearly. Under the so-called Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), Canada employs tens of thousands of workers from Mexico and the Caribbean annually on farms and other agri-food production sites. 

But despite their decades of contribution to the Canadian food system, workers under this programme are kept in a state of precarity by a policy framework that denies them basic labour protections, prevents them from settling permanently in Canada, and keeps them dependent on the goodwill of their employers. These characteristics are what have led many academics and rights groups to compare this labour model to a modern form of indentureship. 

The SAWP has its origins in the Commonwealth Caribbean Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which was created in 1966 in response to demands from Canadian fruit and vegetable growers who were facing a shortage of Canadian workers willing to provide low-wage manual farm labour. The programme started with 263 workers from Jamaica, and has since expanded to include Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and eight eastern Caribbean countries. Today, around 60,000 workers come to Canada every year through the programme, as well as through the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP). 

Under the SAWP, the governments of the sending countries maintain a roster of agricultural workers ready to be sent to Canada in response to labour requests by Canadian farm owners. Workers accepted into the programme are permitted to come to Canada to work for a maximum of eight months out of the year. Their work permits are tied to a single employer, and they are not allowed to bring their spouses or children with them. After eight months of work in Canada, they have to return home. However, employers have the right to request specific workers by name to return the following year. In practice, most of the participants in the SAWP are recalled year after year, sometimes accumulating decades of experience working on Canadian farms.

Migrant workers often work for up to 17 hours a day on Ontario farms, six or seven days a week.

In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, migrant workers make up 41.6 per cent of the agricultural labour force. Demand for labour in the sector has grown over the years with the transition from small and medium-sized family farms to largescale commercial farming operations focused on export. Canada is now the world’s fifth largest food exporter, generating CA$74 billion in income from agricultural exports annually. The move towards export-oriented farming has fuelled a need for cheap and highly productive labour, enabling produce to be exported at competitive prices. 

Migrant workers brought in under the SAWP represent a cheap and exploitable pool of labour, because they are exempt from labour standards applicable to other workers in Ontario, concerning minimum wage requirements, hours of work, overtime pay and time off. Migrant workers often work for up to 17 hours a day on Ontario farms, six or seven days of the week. Their work is repetitive and physically demanding and could require them to operate heavy machinery or handle pesticides and other chemicals, often without adequate training or access to safety gear. They work under intense pressure to meet daily productivity targets, and the least productive workers are punished by being barred from work for two to three days without pay. 

Since their immigration status is tied to their employer, and they are prohibited from collective bargaining, migrant workers in Ontario are usually reluctant to raise concerns about working conditions or abuses for fear that they will be sent back home. Under the SAWP, employers can terminate workers’ contracts ‘for noncompliance, refusal to work, or any other sufficient reason’, resulting in immediate deportation. A negative evaluation from an employer will often mean that the worker will not be called back to work the following year. Moreover, the practice of medical deportation allows employers to repatriate sick workers even if their illnesses or injuries were caused by their work in Canada. Out of 787 repatriations of agricultural workers that occurred between 2001 and 2011 in Ontario, 41.3 per cent were for medical or surgical reasons and 25.5 per cent for external injuries. 

In reality, employer control extends beyond working conditions to almost all aspects of a migrant worker’s life, because the SAWP also requires workers to live in employer-provided housing. This usually consists of bunkhouses located on the farm premises, with up to 24 beds in a room and virtually no privacy. The poor state of their housing has been a consistent source of grievance for migrant workers over the years. Common complaints include pest infestations, broken amenities, gas leaks, sewage issues, and insufficient bathroom and kitchen facilities. Migrants living and working on employer premises in rural areas have limited ability to make contact with others in the community, contributing to their isolation. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Canada, the overcrowded state of housing for migrant workers immediately led to mass outbreaks on farms. Many of the affected workers came from communities relatively untouched by Covid-19 and were only exposed to the virus as a result of their work in Canada. In one farm in Norfolk County, over 200 out of 216 migrant workers tested positive for the virus by June 2020. News of the widespread outbreaks, which caused the deaths of three Mexican workers, prompted the Mexican government the same month to stop sending its nationals to Canada until health and safety concerns were addressed. 

While the pandemic exposed the poor living conditions of migrant workers, it also created new justifications for discrimination. Migrant workers were often treated by the public as vectors of disease, even though it was their presence in Canada that put them at risk of contracting the virus. They reported being subjected to increased restrictions on their mobility, which prevented them from going to town to shop for necessities or send money to their families, while Canadian farm workers faced no such restrictions. These experiences add to the daily humiliations that migrant workers face on their worksites, which many describe as racially toxic environments. Caribbean workers –who are mostly Black men – report particularly high levels of racist treatment, not only from their employers but also from the local residents of surrounding white farming towns. 

The TFWP and SAWP programmes are part of a long history of labour practices in Canada in which racialized groups are recruited to perform gruelling and poorly remunerated work while being simultaneously excluded from permanent settlement. Precedents include the recruitment of Chinese labourers to build the Canada Pacific Railway in the late nineteenth century (600 of whom died on the job) and the Live-in Caregiver Program, which brought Black Caribbean women to perform domestic work while blocking the permanent settlement of Black migrants in Canada. Scholars have connected these practices to the driving logic of settler colonialism behind Canada’s founding: after the conquered land was ‘cleared’ through the violent subjugation of indigenous peoples, migrants were brought to work for the economy established on the cleared land. While some categories of migrants were deemed ‘settler-worthy’ and welcomed to stay, others, predominantly those who are racialized and constructed as ‘lowskilled’, continue to be treated only as disposable sources of labour. 

For SAWP workers, there is no pathway through which they can acquire permanent residence or become covered by the labour rights guaranteed to other Canadians. Their precarious immigration status is an inherent feature of the programme, which legally constructs workers as ‘temporary’ even though the need for their labour is structural and permanent, as evidenced by the fact that the programme has been running for over five decades. The nomenclature of these programmes means that agricultural workers are always described in public discourse as ‘foreign’ and ‘temporary’, reinforcing the assumption that they do not belong in Canada. Migrant workers are then rendered vulnerable to abuses on two fronts, both because of the power the programmes give to their employers, and because of their status as racialized minorities in Canada. 

Given that exploitation is inherent to the design of these programmes, rights advocates have long called for an end to ‘temporary’ and employer-bound labour migration schemes. The Global Slavery Index specifically names the SAWP as a programme contributing to conditions of modern slavery in Canada and calls for the abolition of the TFWP. These programmes justify a lower standard of treatment for racialized workers from the global south, while enabling the profits of their labour to flow disproportionately to Canada’s corporate class. Agricultural workers coming to Canada should have pathways to permanent residency available to them after working a certain period in the country, similar to other migrants. They play a vital role in Canada’s and should be treated accordingly.

Photo: A man watches a religious sermon from his bunkbed at Cervini Farms, in Leamington, Ontario, Canada. 1 August 2021. Credit: Christopher Luna.