Shane MartínezThroughout the pandemic we have consistently heard stories about brave frontline heroes. Those who have kept the essential sectors of our economy and society operational in these most uncertain of times. Whether it is healthcare, construction, public transportation or grocery stores — we rightfully see these workers represented, acknowledged and thanked in public service announcements and advertisements.
Noticeably absent, however, is any representation of the agricultural workers who keep us fed. Even in the midst of harvest season, we see no images of the thousands of migrant farmworkers who toil for long hours to ensure that in the face of COVID-19 we have the local fruits and vegetables that are so cherished.
Whether it is the hundreds of promotional posts on social media made by the provincial government through its Foodland Ontario program, or the massive posters hanging in Loblaws grocery stores, the existence of these workers has been effectively ignored. Instead we are only shown the smiling faces of white farm owners and their families who typically oversee fields and greenhouses full of racialized workers who are the lifeblood of Ontario’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
The concept of the “family farm” is largely a tale of a bygone era. Time and technology have seen most of those farms expand into profitable, family-owned corporate enterprises. The individuals now in charge of these farming businesses are not the same ones exhaustingly cultivating cash crops from sun up to sun down while earning minimum wage.
Yet the image of the small-town farmer is desperately clung to by the agriculture industry and marketers alike, seemingly aware that it obscures how the “Canadian” produce we covet so greatly is, ironically, largely grown and harvested by those who come from here from the global south.
Many migrant farmworkers arrive here though the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). The SAWP allows Canadian employers to bring workers from designated countries (primarily Mexico and Jamaica) to work on farms for up to eight months each year. Canadian workers typically avoid these jobs because of working conditions, inadequate wages, and a lack of manual skills.
Migrant farmworkers are denied any role in negotiating the contracts governing their employment, which include a clause allowing employers to terminate their jobs at any time. The possibility of being repatriated discourages workers from airing complaints and concerns. Their fear is well-founded. Farmworkers in Ontario are denied the most basic protections in the workplace as a result of being excluded by law from unionizing and collective bargaining.
Most people are unaware of what workers endure for Ontario fruits and vegetables to make it to their tables. Long hours, dangerous working conditions, overcrowded housing, rural isolation, a lack of access to permanent residency, and minimal information about Canadian law create conditions which keep many workers on the margins of society. Hundreds of migrant farmworkers have been infected with COVID-19 in Ontario, and three have lost their lives.
The question then begs to be asked: why is there a widespread refusal to acknowledge or depict migrant farmworkers in representations about Ontario produce? Is it because showing them will humanize their labour? It is because it will disrupt the antiquated and misleading story about where local food comes from? Or is it because it will force us to confront uncomfortable realities of exploitation, privilege and systemic racism which have historically defined the agricultural industry in Canada?
Whatever the answers to these questions might be, one thing is for certain: denying the existence of migrant farmworkers is to deny the humanity of those risking their lives to bring local food to our tables. This denial sends the message that they are good enough to work, but not good enough to be seen or heard.
Giving farmworkers the chance to represent themselves in images and narratives about the wonderful crops that we enjoy could spark broader public conversations about systemic vulnerabilities and the policy changes workers would like to see.
It is long overdue for us, as a society, to start being honest with ourselves about the hands that feed us, including the names, faces and realities of migrant farmworkers. If we fail to meet this challenge, we will inevitably resign ourselves to a continued state of willful ignorance in which we deny the very existence of those who grow the food that we are unwilling to grow ourselves.
Shane Martínez is a Toronto-based criminal defence and human rights lawyer, and serves as pro bono legal counsel to the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW). He litigated the first successful human rights case of a migrant farmworker in Ontario, and regularly lectures on transnational labour and migrant rights.
Image: Darren Wanliss/Unsplash