Black Life: Untold Stories reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada, dispelling commonly accepted myths and celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known individuals. The eight-part series spans more than 400 years with an eye toward contemporary issues, culture, politics, music, art and sports.
This article is by migrant advocate Chris Ramsaroop, who is featured in the episode “Migrations.”
I came into organizing migrant workers by accident. In 2001, there was a wildcat strike in Leamington, Ont., about 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto, involving migrant farm workers from Mexico who were protesting their accommodations and kitchen facilities, amongst other working and living conditions.
Rather than address their concerns, the employer terminated the workers’ employment, and as a result, they were repatriated to their home country.
Right after the strike, the United Farm Workers (the union I worked for at the time) tasked me with organizing a delegation to investigate working and living conditions at farms near Windsor, Ont. I will never forget the first time I visited Leamington. In the parking lot of St. Michael’s church, we were surrounded by dozens of workers speaking over one another to raise a litany of concerns, from living next to raw sewage and long hours of work, to overcrowded housing. It was surreal to hear about the cold, hard reality that people — who we celebrate as “feeding our nation” — had to endure.
After that, I learned more about the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which brings tens of thousands of labourers to Canada from the Caribbean and Mexico annually. Migrant agricultural workers are hired by a single employer for up to eight months a year; they must return home after their contract; and they can’t apply for permanent residency and thus Canadian citizenship. The program was developed to address so-called labour shortages in the agricultural industry. I don’t believe a labour shortage exists; rather, the government has developed a program where workers are employed under conditions that most other workforces are not subjected to.
The SAWP is an employer-driven program with an inherent power imbalance built into its structure. Workers do not have any say in the operations of their workplace, nor the structure of the program. When work permits are are tied to one employer, workers are afraid of not only being sent home, but also not being employed the following year. In addition, their employment contracts essentially bond them to one employer and deny them the right to seek out a different job.
The SAWP is eerily reminiscent to me. After the end of slavery, my mother’s family immigrated to the Caribbean from India as indentured labourers. They were part of a larger movement of workers from that country and China — as well as Portugal, Africa and Indonesia — which allowed plantation owners to avoid paying a living wage to freed Africans and meeting their demands for improved working conditions. Disparaged as “coolies,” indentured workers were seen as scabs and docile, easy to subjugate and exploit. But there are also narratives of resistance, survival and community.
“The racialized nature of temporary labour migration to Canada and elsewhere is not an historical accident, coincidence or twist of fate,” legal scholar Adrian Smith wrote in an essay. “Nor is it accidental that exploitation and displacement so crucial to capitalist development takes on racialized class proportions across territorial borders under neoliberal capitalist imperialism.”
What I see today in Canada is the same system of plantation labour that has ravaged the landscape of the Caribbean. In Canada, however, employers can pick and choose from a pool of workers from any of the SAWP’s participating countries. As a comrade once remarked, employers are constantly threatening to replace an entire group of workers if their productivity goes down. Over the last twenty years, workers have told us that employers would replace an entire group of workers from one country and replace them with another for multiple reasons including exerting their rights at work.
Jamaican workers were at one time the largest group of migrants employed under the SAWP. Today, Mexico and Guatemala are the largest, with Jamaica coming in third. Racist stereotypes come into play in which workers are employed to pick which crops. Canadian growers and government officials believe Mexicans are better suited for greenhouse labour and, because of their shorter stature, work that involves stooping close to the ground. Caribbean workers, on the other hand, are seen as better at picking tobacco, apples and tender fruit, such as peaches. As Canada shifted away from tobacco production, the predominantly Caribbean workforce lost employment.
Temporary farm workers are left out of discussions about our food system
Racism is also at the core of both how the program is structured and how it excludes migrant farm workers from the communities they work and live in. When we go to our local grocery store or farmers’ market and celebrate eating local, we perpetuate the “big lie” about our farming industry.
We only see Black and brown people as bodies, and in doing so, we ignore their contribution to our society and how they support their families back home.
In 2010, migrant workers organized a 12-hour march from Leamington to Windsor, dubbed the Pilgrimage to Freedom. More than 150 migrants and their allies came together over the Thanksgiving weekend to decry working and living conditions, abuse at work and wage theft, and to demand status in Canada.
Migrant workers and their families are telling the government, their employers and the broader public that they will not be ignored. Their voices matter, and their acts of collective resistance are essential to the health of our farming industry.
As we celebrate Black life, it’s imperative that we honour Black resistance across the food chain, especially among generations of Caribbean farm workers. For context, I return to Smith: “The trajectory of these racialized class dynamics extends back at least to the commencement of new world enslavement, and yet it also invites the possibilities of collective resistance struggles of which the Haitian Revolution provides the paradigmatic example.”
“Migrations” is streaming now on CBC Gem.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from features on anti-Black racism to success stories from within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.