December 2013 – Continuing the Conversation on Migrant Labour Issues Meeting Notes

A kind thanks to all who attended the December 2013 Toronto Youth Food Policy Community Meeting! This was an energetic and informative meeting on migrant labour issues in Ontario. Thank you to our panelists, Ed Dunsworth, Jenn Pfenning and Chris Ramsaroop. Because of the nature of the meeting being a panel discussion, we strove to provide you with verbatim minutes of the proceedings; The integrity check of these minutes takes some time, so we apologize for the delay, and here they are!

If you have any comments or questions, please email us at

We are looking forward to seeing old and newcomers back out at the next one in early February.

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December Community Meeting Minutes (in doc format), minutes with links and photos follow

Milagros for Migrants Exhibit

Milagros for Migrants

Thank you to Dr. Deborah Barndt and Min Sook Lee for allowing the TYFPC to display their exhibit in the room, prior to the panel discussion. This collaborative multi-media exhibit honours Ontario’s Migrant Farm Workers and explores the relationship between food and labour justice and places migrant workers’ issues in the broader context of global corporate agriculture.

We were grateful to be able to share it with our community members.

Panel Discussion

Name, Organization (Perspective)

Mediator: Caileigh McKnight, Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (Committee Member)
Panelist: Jenn Pfennings, Pfennings Organic (Farm)
Panelist: Ed Dunsworth, Independent Researcher and Activist (Academia)
Panelist: Chris Ramsaroop, Justicia For Migrant Workers (Advocacy)

Note: The following minutes should not be taken as ad verbatim. They are notes taken of the panelists’ discussion to the best ability of the note-taker. They are meant to convey the main points of the conversation and are in some cases summaries and are not exhaustive. If you have any questions concerning the proceedings below, please feel free to email us at Please see meeting poster attached alongside these minutes for bios of the panelists.

Caileigh: Speaks to introduction to meeting tonight & bios of panelists.

Ed Dunsworth

Independent Researcher and Activist (Academia)

Ed DunsworthI will ask and partially answer 3 questions on the situation and history of migrant labour issues: Where are we with migrant labour in Ontario today?; How did we get here?; How do we get out of here?

Past decade has experienced change in immigration policy in Canada; from permanent immigration to temporary foreign labour. The biggest share in temporary foreign labour has been in “non-skilled” workers, including agricultural workers. There are over 30,000 temporary foreign farm workers in Canada each year, and about 17,000 migrant workers are in Ontario. They are mostly from Mexico and Jamaica, but from other places as well. These workers experience sub-standard housing, unsafe conditions, inability to complain about working conditions, and illegal for workers to unionize to gain bargaining power. These workers have been called “permanently temporary” as they are unable to apply for permanent residency status.

Most of the migrant farm workers have come through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). This is only part of the issue. Founded in 1966 as a result of pressure by Caribbean states and agricultural growers in Canada who mutually wanted a program to be implemented. The Canadian government’s policy at the time was cheap food: therefore, Caribbean growers/labourers were considered more favourable as they were contractually-obligated to stay for the duration of their contract, would accept lower wages and were generally hard workers. There were many issues at the time with fragmented Canadian employees. SAWP itself is blamed for the poor working conditions as it enforces temporary status and low wages. However, long before this program came into place, the trends that were true of the SAWP were also true of other modes of farm labour in Canada. I will discuss 4 key aspects of the SAWP, and then examine how these factors have been present in Canadian agriculture long predating the SAWP.

  1. Government creating cheap food and agriculture policies; therefore, the need to attract cheap, exploitable, quality labour.
  2. The centrality of racism to the SAWP: The SAWP’s founding was deeply influenced by the racist ideologies of Canadian government officials, who were hesitant to allow black Caribbean men to work and live alongside white Canadian women, due to fears of sexual purity and demographic composition. These racist concerns also ensured that the program was designed as a temporary, rather than permanent one. Example of racism also playing a role in the U.S. was the Canada tobacco worker program, from the 1930s-1980s.
  3. Restriction of status: Strict regulation to keep seasonal workers under temporary status via migration permits. Employees therefore had an unusual amount of power over the workers. Workers who arrived were usually not educated as to the labour policies of Canada and so could be worked extremely hard in all sorts of conditions. Examples from Western European include the tobacco worker program, and U.S.-Canada program.
  4. Poor living and working conditions: Governments have for over 100 years helped agriculture find cheap, exploitable workers. Workers frequently complained of conditions, physical ailments. Historical examples from Ontario include the Tobacco Belt. Any attempts at organizing to bargain as a worker collective, were met with state and employer contempt – pamphlets (educational materials) were taken away, workers threatened with their jobs etc.

SAWP was merely a more rigid expression of already ingrained trends. It helped ingrain them further into Canadian society. The issue facing us today is not just into get rid of the SAWP program. Rather, the roots of the problems facing agricultural workers today lie much deeper, in the heart of agricultural capitalism, and capitalism itself. We must broaden our perspective, overhaul our entire agricultural and economic system to address agricultural capitalism, social policies et al. Instead of pursuing piecemeal strategies of asking government for changes, we need to escalate strategies of organizing and put direct pressure on employers, agribusiness, and government.

Jenn Pfennings

Pfennings Organic (Farm)

Jenn: You may think that as a farmer I will disagree with everything that [Ed] has said. Some of it I will. The situation on my farm is very different from what Ed had described, so it is not true for all farms in Canada. I believe that our workers paint a picture of what could be across other farms with respects to manual foreign labour and working conditions. We are an organic farm – several generations old. A large number of my personal family members all work manual labour on the farm. We are focused on Ontario sales within Ontario and do a little bit of exporting on large-volume things when we have peak quantities. We also wholesale and buy from very small farms, which provides them with greater market access and helps us spread our transportation costs across more products.

PfenningsWe have seasonal fluctuations in the volume of work. Long hours… manual labour… having to work in all kinds of weather conditions. We all continue to work through this together. In the last 50 years or so there has been much less engagement of Canadians in farm labour, so skill-levels have dropped among Canadian employees, and profit margins are thinning. Most farms in Canada are fortunate to make a gross profit of 1% in a year. Many farms are in the negative at the end of the year and have to be helped out by income stabilization programs by the government. It is not sustainable. There is also a cultural and societal bias against farm work as legitimate work. Many educators do not respect these skills – farming infrequently makes the list as a desirable or possible career and the training opportunities for farm work are scarce.

20-25% of workers on our farm are migrant workers. It is extremely diverse: generally first generation immigrants from Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. We also employ local Canadian workers. We have an incredibly dedicated and engaged group of workers on our farm. We have tried to create a community on our farm because they are long hours and we want to enjoy the work together. We don’t currently have any internship programs but we are working on figuring this out because we want to help try and raise the skill level of local employees and provide greater training opportunities. Many farms will turn to (local) internship programs, as ways to get cheap labour… these interns are usually unpaid. We pay all of our workers at least minimum wage. Sometimes we are unable to retain workers even if we are happy with them, as the government may deny their return visa. Other times, the reasons are worker negligence or inability to respect other workers, though all of these incidents have been rare.

Reasons people choose migrant work coming from Jamaica – and I have been to Jamaica many times (I speak to this country because many of my workers are from here) – and choose to leave their families behind for up to 8 months at a time, it is because they have little to no choices for employment at home. Work here offers them greater economic opportunities than they could have at home. There is a little restaurant in Jamaica that I really like; one of the servers used to be a farm worker and every year he begs me to hire him. I ask him why he would want to leave his job and family for a work on a farm in Canada? He responded that I could not imagine a difference that work in Canada makes to his living situation, particularly economically. This means there are many employable Caribbean labourers looking for work in Canada on farms but it is also what makes them very vulnerable and exploitable, for the reason that they desire this job and have few other options. Many of these workers do it for their kids.

People think that temporary foreign workers don’t pay taxes, or are taking away Canadian jobs. They are not taking away local jobs. Before the SAWP program we were facing such a labour shortage that we would take anyone who would show up for work. We could only do so much ourselves and the unfortunate thing was that the type of workers we were finally able to get locally had substance abuse programs or would not show up for work. Temporary foreign workers do pay taxes and are eligible to get them back if they earn under the minimum income. They pay into the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), Employment Insurance (EI) and are entitled to minimum wage. They are protected by the same legislation as Canadians that govern taxes. They are however not able to collect EI benefits. They are currently able to receive pension payments, but the government is currently trying to shut down these benefits as well. I believe this is wrong. They should either be exempt from paying for EI or CPP or they should be able to access these benefits. I’m getting on to a whole new topic here but for what you can do, please write letters to the government and educate others on this topic.

Through SAWP, contracts are figured out individually and they set out housing requirements, housing inspections before the first worker arrives for the season, and the foreign government will provide a liaison person/office for the workers to access if they have a problem (the liaison also will make surprise visits to the farm and inspect the premises/conditions). We withhold a percentage of the workers’ pay that they earn over the season and give it to the Jamaican Liaison Service office. The Liaison office then pays this amount back to the worker when they are back in their home country because they found that the employees generally didn’t have any money management skills and this helped them avoid going broke before returning home. We have to report all hours worked and their pay every pay period to the Liaison.

Connect with Pfennings Organic Farm on their Website | Facebook | Twitter

Chris Ramsaroop

Justicia For Migrant Workers (Advocacy)

Chris: Every time I give a talk, I do a couple of things. One is that I begin my talks by taking a moment to remember all workers who we have died or have died, injured or have been sent home. Some of these deaths occur outside of Canada but these are people we have gotten to known and are no longer able to work. Because of the structure of the program, policy, and conditions. I was an advocate while at the University of Toronto and would often occupy presidents’ offices and cause all sorts of ruckus. In my studies I started learn more about worker issues. We eventually went to the Canadian Labour Congress and then started talking to migrant workers themselves. We saw that this wasn’t a transient issue and something that we needed to bring to light and work to change.

Many people don’t know about the labourers who work for our fruits & vegetables. This invisibleness is extremely important to the program – before, during and after the program. Workers when laid off are normally not paid employment benefits and they have little job security. A lot of the work that we do is in secret because of the sensitivity of the issue and because we want to gain the trust of the labourers. At night we will go to the bunkers of these farms and talk to migrant labourers about their rights, their options and educate them on the program.

We are all volunteers and the reason we do this because of how we see this as continuing how racialized people are treated differently. To us the SAWP program is indentureship that has taken place in the past and because these same discriminating forces are recreating the same indenture-like structures here in Canada today.

With Justicia for Migrant Workers we do education with workers with the goal of trying to build power amongst migrant workers. Our work is about see amplifying the voices of workers and we organize to find opportunities on farms where we can improve conditions and worker rights. We challenge community groups, food activists, employers and labour organizations on their perceptions about migrant workers and the types of policies they advocate for. We don’t do this to tell everyone that they suck – we try and figure out how we can collectively work together to reform the current structure in place for migrant labour. There should be equal rights across borders – on paper we all do, but temporary status enables the Canadian government to deny benefits/treatment. So part of our work is exposing that and challenging legislative laws. It is about finding way to allow migrant workers to exercise their rights.

About 4-5 years ago we did a 12-hour march in Ontario from Leamington to Windsor called the Pilgrimage to Freedom; we did this with Filipino and Thai migrant women who led the march and were fed up with working conditions. We are also currently organizing against racial profiling of migrant workers, which we have seen manifested in several different way. In one example we organized migrant workers to attend an election debate with the Citizenship and Immigration minister.

When the migrant workers attended the organizers of the debate called the police. Secondly the town of Leamington wanted to pass a by law to prevent migrant workers from ‘loitering’ in the downtown area. We were strongly opposed to do this. We wrote an open letter to show the connections between sexism, racism, community gentrification and harassment. We can’t just simply blame ‘the other’. History tells us a lot about how this has occurred in the past and many of these are trends that have persisted over time but continue to manifest itself in different ways.

Part of our strategy has also been a legal component. It is complicated but I will speak to it a bit later. There are 2 choices: build strength and get people empowered, or spend a lot of money on legal fees and this is actually disempowering. Think about reconceptualizing what a humane food system means – it shouldn’t be based just on profit. We have done several human rights cases accomplished through different lawyers or clinics. All we have done is for free. There was a worker from St. Lucia in the Leamington area, working in a greenhouse. He stood up against his employer who was using derogative language and behaviour against all the workers and he was fired and sent back to St. Lucia. Because there was no visa visitor at that time he was able to return to Canada and we helped him file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights tribunal. He won the case and was awarded $23,000

There has never been an inquest into the death of a migrant worker. For over 13 years we have been pushing for an inquest into the death of migrant workers, which at this point we have been denied. We filed a human rights complaint, which was recently held; we have made some gains afterwards. We want to use this process to pose the question: How do we expand this right of inquest to agricultural workers? In the construction and mining sectors, inquests are mandatory and this has led to stricter regulations and better working conditions. This type of process could improve agricultural working conditions as well.

A final case example, there is a human rights case going on regarding sexual abuse of labourers on farms. For us we have intervened in this case to highlight the intersection of gender, race and status.

What does inclusion mean? I discussed arguments related to access to EI for migrant workers. For us its about extending not excluding migrant workers from these benefits. How do we break down the barriers between migration, benefits and rights? What would our society look like if it were more inclusive? We believe that people should have the right to residency and status in Canada. Migration to Canada creates a division and it allows migrants to be vulnerable. We already have a program that allows non residents access to EI. We already have a working program that addresses these issues with American workers – so if this program already exists, why can we not expand this to all other countries?

When we think about the food on our table it is about making sure that all workers are treated with dignity. Things we should all do:

  1. Raise awareness and educate yourself and others on what is going on.
  2. Learn from history.
  3. Dream – conceptualize a food system that challenges the status quo and creates a real transformation of justice.

Connect with Justicia for Migrant Workers on their Website | Twitter | Facebook

Followed by a question & answer period. Please join us for our next community meeting and connect with us on

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