In the quest for just and sustainable food practices, why is nobody talking about the organic farming’s dependence on migrant labour?

The organic food industry in Canada is booming. As of 2009, more than 3,900 certified organic farms were in operation across Canada, accounting for just under two per cent of the country’s total farms. This number is growing fast, too—along with knowledge and consumer preference for organic food. Retail sales from 2008 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) show a market of $2 billion, including imports, exactly double that of 2006. Canada produced more organic items than any other country in the world in 2009. Nearly half of the market is in fruits and vegetables, largely from organic farms in Saskatchewan, B.C., Ontario and Quebec. All of it—every single strawberry, carrot, and head of broccoli—is subject to strict standards and regulations.

Organic regulations give value to everything from animal welfare, soil systems, and biodiversity to watersheds and air quality—concepts of sustainability focused almost exclusively on the physical environment. Farms go to extreme lengths to close the gap between farmer and eater: consumers are invited to open farm days for tours, food is meticulously labeled and sourced, and farm owners are no longer faceless, appearing on websites, packaging and TV commercials. In all this effort to exist outside conventional food practices and eat guilt-free, however, there is one link in the food chain consumers know shockingly little about: the migrant worker producing all this wonderful food.

The myth of the family run, locally staffed farm has somehow remained despite fundamental changes to both the scale and style of organic agricultural production in Canada. While many farms are still family owned and operated, the labour usage line is blurring between large-scale organics and conventional agriculture. Some of the country’s largest organic farm operations already employ migrant labourers—and many farmers and workers believe migrant labour will become necessary to churn out organic food at a production scale that meets growing consumer demand and allows farm owners to make a profit.

Short of visiting every organic farm in Canada, there is currently no way of knowing how many migrant workers are on organic farms, or how they’re all treated. Migrant labour employment numbers for organic farms are undocumented—partially because labour isn’t regulated under organic certification standards. The best that can be said of organic farms is that some migrant workers have good working conditions and relations with their employers, and many do not. Mistreatment ranges from discrimination, to the inability to form unions, poor safety training, and, in some cases, negligence so extreme it results in death. With little recourse for even the most severe violations, bad behaviour is often ignored, if not actively covered up. If such bungles are discussed at all, the conversation is often automatically centered  on conventional agriculture—and many proponents of organic farming are happy to remain silent.

Farming in Canada is in a crisis. A 2011 brief released by the National Farmers Union (NFU), one of the major lobbying organizations for farmers in Canada, lays out a perfect storm of social, cultural and political factors. The trend across Canada, is towards larger farms, operated by an aging, farmer-operator (2011 statistics Canada pegs the average at 51). At the same time, profit margins have been narrowing for farmers across Canada–and many farmers are under the pressure to scale up and take on more debt. While the gross revenue, or total amount a farm takes in a year, has increased the net income, the amount the farmer realizes as profit, has decreased. This can be partially explained by the instability of farm product prices versus stable (and increasing) farm expenses like seeds, machinery, and labour. As Canadian farming has become increasingly competitive and financially focused, there is a growing demand for reliable, available and affordable farm labour—especially as more rural Canadians move to cities.

Organic farms are no exception. In fact, thanks to its growing popularity and labour-intensive production process–workers can’t use chemicals to spray weeds and must pick out weeds by hand–organic farming often needs more human power than conventional farming. Good agricultural workers that won’t skip town to ditch farm life are a must. “We need a reliable source of labour. Canadian labour is unreliable,” say Colleen Ross, NFU vice president and co-owner of Waratah Downs, an organic farm located in the Ottawa area, “We’ve also had people flake out on us during the middle of the season. We really can’t have [that] as an organic production farm.” Short season fruit and vegetable crops, in other words, do not stop or slow down for the whims of a worker.

The first government-initiated response to the growing demand for farm labour came in 1966 with the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). SAWP was originally a bilateral (country to country) agreement with Jamaica to employ workers on up to eight month contracts to work for a single farm. The program is still under the federal provision of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) and has expanded to include new participant countries, most notably Mexico. The HRSDC has also expanded the use of migrant farm labour through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), which is designed to fill in the gaps of SAWP by including more participant countries and requiring less education, training, and monetary investment, making the TFWP a more flexible labour source for farmer-owners.

A farmer-owner looking for SAWP participants applies through the HRSDC, which ensures that the farmer tried to use local labour before using SAWP. Once approved by the HRSDC, the provincial government regulates the working, living and processing of foreign workers to Canada. In Ontario, this is through a third party organization called Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), which acts on behalf of the employers. FARMS works with foreign recruiters, based in host countries to bring migrant labourers to Canada as well as coordinate transfers and terminations during their contract periods.

Originally conceived as a Band-Aid solution to shortages in farm labour, the migrant labour pool in Canada has grown to over 28,000 migrant workers through SAWP and TFWP across Canada. Estimates for Ontario, the largest participant, are roughly 18,000 with the majority, half of which hail from Mexico. Most workers are employed at fruit, vegetable and tobacco farms that range in size from small family run teams of four employees to large multi-million dollar operations employing more then one hundred migrant labourers. As Rachel Currie, a migrant labourer advocate and researcher with Wilfred Laurier University points out: “There is no typical farm that employs migrant labour.” SAWP and TFWP participants are responsible for growing food throughout Canada, from large-scale mono-crop conventional farms to small- to mid-scale organic vegetable farms.

Organic and alternative food systems are presented and defined as separate from conventional agriculture. Organic farming’s biggest goal—to push Canada’s food system toward a more sustainable framework— is commendable. So are its principles of equity and justice. Unfortunately, these things are exactly what makes the silence surrounding farm labour and migrant workers most troubling. As it stands, SWAP has remained largely unchanged since 1966. Talking with agricultural workers, migrant labourer rights advocates and support workers across Ontario, the consensus is that the system is broken, allowing for stunning human rights violations.

Under organic production methods, there’s a fundamental need for labouring bodies—the usual figure cited is one person per acre. Small to mid-sized organic vegetable farms often use a combination of volunteers, interns, apprentices, local labour and on-farm help. With organic farm expansion and increased demand there’s now a more pressure for labour then ever before. With the overall farm labour shortage in Canada, and declining rural population, more and more farmers are turning to migrant labour, including organic ones.  While Ross does not currently use migrant labour, she says she would definitely consider it–and makes no apologies for saying so. “We are a production farm. We need to be able to scale up and make money in order to have a life and raise a family,” she says, “Migrant labour is not hands down bad—it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Ross has hit on a growing split in the organic farming community. Some farmers see the migrant labour system as flawed and not one they would even consider participating in—opting to meet their growing production goals with apprenticeship programs that pay lower wages in exchange for housing and learning experience. Other farmers, like Ross, are willing to employ SWAP and TFWP participants and feel, as Ross puts it, that they should not be judged harshly for it. She thinks of it this way: She would rather migrant labourers work with good quality organic farms than on a conventional farm with chemicals. “People working on the land is one of the oldest parts of human history,” says Ross, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your career being farm work.”

Unfortunately, there is something wrong with the way migrant labour is used in much of Canada’s organic agricultural sector. There are a number of large scale systemic and structural issues embedded in seasonal migrant labour that perpetuate an unbalanced and inequitable labour system. To start with, workers have no way to obtain status in Canada. Participants of both migrant programs pay into the Canadian pension plan, employment insurance and may rack up years of living experience in Canada. However, because workers are categorized as ‘unskilled labour’ by the federal government, and required to return to their home country at the end of their contracts, they cannot gain status in Canada.

This lack of recognized status is often (but not always) compounded by the social exclusion many labourers experience in Canada. Selena Zhang who worked on an asparagus farm alongside a number of migrant labourers in Leamington, Ontario during 2009. In Leamington, the population is about 35,000, with roughly 5,000 – 6,000 migrant workers in town each year. This makes for a big racial divide, says Zhang. Many locals won’t go to banks or grocery stores on Fridays, when the thousands of migrant workers had their days off and travelled to town. “Most Canadians, weren’t very accepting,” says Zhang, “[Workers] often get called names and aren’t welcomed in certain areas.” This tense dynamic is unlikely to change just because the workers are coming from an organic farm.

Under Ontario law, agricultural workers are not allowed to unionize or collectively bargain. In late 2010, the United Nation’s International Labour Organization (ILO) criticized Ontario’s Agricultural Employees Act, 2002 which makes collectively bargaining illegal for agricultural workers. The ILO said both Ontario and Canada as a whole were guilty of a discriminatory attack on human rights. Its comments reinforced a 2008 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that found the Act in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That ruling was overturned in April 2011 by the Supreme Court of Canada. Questions on the usefulness of unions for migrant labourers aside, not having a unified voice makes it difficult for labourers to advocate for their rights and communicate within their home countries and in Canada. “Ontario must end its blatant abuse of the rights of the workers who grow and harvest our food,” said Wayne Hanley, president of Canada’s United Food Commercial Workers Union, at the time, “These are farm workers, not farm animals, and people have human rights.”

Perhaps the most glaring gap, however, is the lack of protection for migrant labourers at their work places. It was not until 2006 that agricultural work was incorporated under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), and the industry standards are still vague. In Alberta agricultural work is still not under OSHA. The result is little to no training, protocol, or safety precautions for workers who are often using equipment and chemicals that are dangerous and toxic. When provided, instructions and training are often inappropriate as most workers do not speak or read English. One worker in Leamington, who was not trained properly on using a power-washer accidentally blew a dime-sized hole in his leg. When he went to get health services, his employer had him sent back to Mexico.

Being sent back, or the practice of repatriation, is all too common for SAWP and TFWP participants. Without providing reason or excuse, an employer can send a labourer back to their home country, terminating their contract immediately. Repatriation leaves the workers in a legal grey area as they are denied pursuing their case under federal or provincial law, as workers are not considered permanent residents. They are often sent home fast, too, leaving no way for many activist to contact them in time to intervene on the worker’s behalf. Even if never used, the stories and threat of being ‘sent back’ hangs over the work environment on many farms; the attitude is work hard, do not rock the boat and you can stay.

With no set standards, the resulting accidents and incidents only become visible in the courts. Take the death of two Jamaican workers at Filsinger’s Organic Food and Orchards in Ayton Ontario. Paul Roach, 44, and Ralston White, 36, suffered from environmental asphyxiation (fumes) trying to fix a vinegar tank pump in September 2010. This particular case was investigated by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, who eventually laid multiple charges on the farm’s three owners and a supervisor, including failure to provide training, equipment, and a rescue plan for working in a dangerous, confined space. The day before the case was supposed to go to trial this January, the Crown agreed to drop all but one charge. The farm supervisor, stuck with the last charge, pleaded guilty and was fined $22,500 for not preventing the workers from entering the vinegar tank where they became trapped and eventually died.

The case is one of the first ever related to migrant labour brought before the Labour Ministry and the $22,500 fine is the lowest ever given. Since the charges were dropped, the case will not be subject to a full criminal investigation, leaving many details surrounding the conditions Roach and White worked under unknown and even more questions about what precautions and training were provided to the workers to ensure their safety. It’s tough to believe much was: According to reports, the workers weren’t removed from the vats until they’d already lost vital signs–and even though they were revived, both died at the hospital. This case is also one of the first migrant labour legal actions taken against an organic farm, forcing organic farming to acknowledge its position in the nation-wide migrant farm labour system.

What this case also indicates is that the working conditions and culture of silence on many Canadian farms will continue without change. The low fine and the lack of policy or law change for the agricultural industry suggests that the crown is willing to let the program stay as it stands: as a piecemeal and reactionary system that hopes to do better next time. At the time of the decision Tzazna Miranda Leal, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, told the Toronto Star: “This decision implies that employers have carte blanche to engage in health and safety violations, and that the legal mechanisms meant to protect workers in fact shield employers from any form of accountability for deaths of their employees.”

The silence and invisibility of migrant labourers is partially due to the power imbalance in the way the program is set out and their precarious citizenship and employment status. “It’s vulnerable for any of the stakeholders to speak up,” says Currie, pointing to farmers, workers, host countries, and the Canadian government, “There’s a big question mark as to who defines the rules of the program. The whole [Seasonal Agricultural Workers] program is enshrined in fear. Everyone has such a big stake.”

It’s debatable, however, how much the different stakeholders have their hands tied—especially when the Canadian government has only moved to protect migrant labourers in the face of legal action. The silence and lack of accountability perpetuates a broken, unmonitored system—especially considering workers’ legal and social vulnerability. Many have not been given any tools to form a voice and are treated as if they used to handling tough, post-plantation work climates. “Migrant labourers are indentured. They are tied to one employer and one site,” says Chris Ramsaroop from Justicia for Migrant Workers, “They have no labour or social mobility.”

Using migrant labour should not be immediately viewed as a black spot on a farm’s record. While SAWP and TFWP are fundamentally flawed and implicated in problematic global structures, the programs have the potential to benefit all of the stakeholders—if they’re used with better protection for workers. For organics, the contradiction lies in not addressing migrant labour rights and farm labour issues, while concurrently claiming sustainability and justice as food system virtues. Part of the silence, can be explained by the fairly recent boom: Canadian labour—whether through volunteer and intern programs or the local rural population—can no longer meet demands.

As for the rest? Ramsaroop admits there haven’t been many attempts to work with food justice and local food organizations, but adds that there is potential. “A lot of it is about challenging peoples assumptions,” he says, “and highlighting why it’s important to talk about migrant workers in the context of local food.” Current attitudes aren’t enough to bring about real change to the Canadian food system. By not acknowledging the use of migrant labour in producing food, organic and alternative agriculture advocates are arguably in complicit agreement with the exploitative status quo maintenance of SAWP and TFWP.

“There needs to be rules and regulations that ensure that people are being treated with dignity and respect,” says Ross. Groups and stakeholders in relative positions of power, like the Canadian Organic Growers and more localized groups like the Toronto Food Policy Council, need to take an active stance. A lack of knowledge or ignorance is only excusable to a point. Propping up a localized food system with a broken, exploitative and imbalanced labour system is simply not sustainable, nor is it just.