Know your farmer, know your food.

When people think about where their food comes from, they often think about how it was grown.

Did the farmers use pesticides? Was it grown organically? Was it grown from genetically modified (GM) seeds?

But, there is more to the story than just how your food was grown. The consumer should be thinking about who was growing it and how they were treated.

Many large farms in Canada use migrant workers to fill their labor force. There are many different reasons for doing this. Perhaps the largest reason is that it is often hard to find local laborers willing to do seasonal farm work.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) allows Canadian farms to hire temporary foreign workers when Canadians and permanent residents are not available. SAWP works on a bilateral agreement with Canada and the participating country to ensure the workers have the necessary documents, have experience in farming, are at least 18 years of age, and are able to satisfy Canadian immigration laws and laws of the workers’ home country.

Temporary foreign workers must be paid the same wages that a Canadian would receive for the same work. While this is usually minimum wage in Canada, it is significantly more money than what the worker would be able to earn in their home country, which makes it a desirable opportunity for these workers. In addition, the employer must also pay for and coordinate round trip travel to and from the workers’ home countries. 

Migrant worker advocacy groups argue that although temporary foreign workers are making minimum wage in Canada, they are paying into E.I., but are never eligible to receive E.I. because they must return to their home country once their work term has finished.

These advocacy groups also support migrant workers who have been exploited, taken advantage of, mistreated, and worked in poor conditions. Some workers reported having to handle pesticide covered vegetables without proper protective equipment, resulting in increased headaches and skin irritations and burns. They also have to endure the hardship of being away from their homes and families for months at a time.

For migrant workers, there’s also no pathway to immigration or citizenship, if desired. This may be changing — the last federal budget included a 3-year pilot project for full-time, non-seasonal agricultural workers as pathway to Canadian residency (but not citizenship).

All of this represents the ongoing effects of colonialism on a global scale that has prevented many in the Global South from accessing land in their home countries, for example. There can be no question that many of those who farm in Canada under SWAP are racialized.

Since March 2015, Service Canada has been doing surprise inspections on farms to ensure that workers are being treated properly and living in appropriate accommodations. Since then, they have issued 129 companies with violations.

The system is far from perfect. But there are examples of farms trying to do things differently.

TapRoot Farms, a certified organic farm in Port Williams, Nova Scotia, has been hiring temporary foreign workers for nearly fourteen years. They are cultivating 280 acres of land (70% is currently certified organic, with 100% to be organic by 2020), and require a large labor force to manage this acreage.

Photo by TapRoot Farm

For eight months of the year, TapRoot Farms owners Josh and Patricia, welcome fifteen employees from Jamaica onto their farm, through SAWP. At Taproot Farms, the temporary foreign workers duties range from planting to weeding to harvesting. The employees live in three homes owned by TapRoot that are close to the farm.

Photo by TapRoot Farm

Josh and Patricia deeply care about their workers and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Josh has made five trips to Jamaica to learn about his workers lives back home. He says he feels it’s important for him to understand the experiences of his employees and wants to reciprocate the hard work they give to him. During these visits, Josh works on their farms and has helped with renovations on their homes. There is mutual respect and friendship between them.

Photo by TapRoot Farm

The topic of migrant workers serves as an important reminder: know your farmer, know your food.

As a consumer, it is your responsibility to learn the story behind your food. Don’t just ask about how your food was grown, but ask who was the person doing the work? Were they treated fairly? Did they earn a living wage? Were they working in healthy conditions? Farmers who are proud of their employees and who treat their employees with dignity and respect will be open about their relationships with their employees. Visit farms, and see for yourself. Every dollar you spend on food is a vote for the way it was produced. Make sure you feel good about the story behind the food you’re eating.

Blog written by: Rebecca Jones, Community Food Coordinator, Cumberland County, Ecology Action Centre

Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood

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