The flaw in the food system: Are Canadians ready for the consequences of paying farm workers more?

'Massive social undertaking' needed to improve working conditions without inflating food prices and driving people to food banks

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Evan Fraser sees a flaw in the Canadian food system that he can’t figure out how to fix. The problem, for the head of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute in Ontario, has to do with migrant workers and food banks. The two are, in a way, tangled together and he can’t see a way to fix one issue without making the other worse.

“I actually stay up at night worrying about this one,” said Fraser, who also serves as Canada Research Chair in global food security. “I don’t have an answer to it.”

For all the cracks in the Canadian food chain exposed by the pandemic, none have been more glaring than the conditions facing migrant farm workers, three of whom have died and hundreds of others have tested positive for COVID-19 during outbreaks on farms, primarily in Ontario.

Addressing that situation in any meaningful way, Fraser said, would involve paying the “full societal and environmental cost of food,” which would mean higher wages and improving the housing provided to seasonal workers who travel to Canada annually under the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

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But rising costs for farmers, already operating with razor-thin margins, would also mean higher food prices, Fraser said. “And we already have a food insecurity problem in this country that has been massively exacerbated by COVID.”

Prior to the pandemic, roughly 10 to 15 per cent of the population experienced food insecurity, meaning they are unable to afford adequate access to food. That figure has likely grown since the pandemic took hold in March as food banks have been reporting surges in demand.

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For example, new visitors to the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto rose by 200 per cent during May and June, compared to February, according to Food Banks Canada (FBC). Earlier this month, the federal government pledged $50 million to purchase surplus food produced by Canadian farms and redistribute it through food banks.

“We are concerned for what’s to come,” said Kirstin Beardsley, FBC’s chief network services officer, adding that food banks could see a 30 per cent increase in visitors if employment insurance changes for the worse and deferred debt payments come due.

“Please keep in mind that food bank use has remained at high levels following the 2008 recession (food bank use has never returned to pre-2008 levels),” Beardsley said in a statement.

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A volunteer packages food at a food bank in Sarnia, Ont., in June.
A volunteer packages food at a food bank in Sarnia, Ont., in June. Photo by Paul Morden/Sarnia Observer/Postmedia Network files

So the question — the one that keeps Fraser awake — is how do you make sure everyone in the food system is treated and paid fairly without increasing food costs and boosting our reliance on food banks?

“That is a massive social undertaking,” he said.

Fraser said the Canadian food system is so concerned with keeping food prices low that it “rewards economic efficiency” over practically every other value at every level of the supply chain, from farmers to processors to retailers.

“And I say that as a consumer who benefits from that economic efficiency, because I don’t pay much for my food and I’m very happy not to and that’s a real asset of Canada, but there is a negative consequence of that,” he said. “What we’re seeing is symptomatic of a situation that squeezes the margins at all levels and then leaves vulnerable people and vulnerable aspects (in the system) open for exploitation.”

Amid the COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers, labour rights groups have reported complaints of unsafe working and living conditions on farms, including poor access to food, restrictions on leaving the property and withheld wages. If employees complain, they face threats and punishments such as being sent back to their home country.

What we’re seeing is symptomatic of a situation that squeezes the margins at all levels and then leaves vulnerable people and vulnerable aspects (in the system) open for exploitation

Evan Fraser

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) in a report in June said it received complaints to its tipline between March 15 and May 15 by workers from Mexico and the Caribbean about racism, threats, surveillance, poor access to food and dirty cramped bunkhouses. In one case, 40 people in a dorm reportedly shared one shower.

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Syed Hussan, MWAC’s executive director, said ending the mistreatment of temporary foreign workers isn’t simply about money.

“Of course, wages are a big part of the conversation,” he said. “But what migrant farm workers are talking about is that housing is being controlled, their inability to speak up about exploitative conditions, their inability to access health care. Those aren’t just about wage pressures. Those are about the immigration system that has tied those workers to employers, in part, yes, to keep wages low.”

The average wage for farm jobs, regardless of whether they are Canadian or migrant workers, ranges between $13 and $15 an hour: $15.05 for general workers, $14.05 for nursery and greenhouse workers, and $13.80 for harvesting labourers,according to Statistics Canada’s Job Vacancy and Wage survey. The most recent census reported annual farm workers salaries averaged between $16,701 and $24,237.

Supporters tape photographs of migrant Mexican workers Juan Lopez Chaparro and Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero during a pro-immigration rally by migrants, refugees and undocumented workers outside the office of Canada's Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in Toronto, July 4, 2020.
Supporters tape photographs of migrant Mexican workers Juan Lopez Chaparro and Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero during a pro-immigration rally by migrants, refugees and undocumented workers outside the office of Canada’s Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in Toronto, July 4, 2020. Photo by Chris Helgren/Reuters files

MWAC on Sunday will hold rallies in 10 Canadian cities to continue its calls for the federal government to untether migrant workers from their employers and provide immediate access to permanent residency for migrant workers.

That, the alliance said, would give workers the same rights as other citizens and allow them to leave bad jobs without having to leave Canada and forego a season’s worth of income. Advocates say the flaw in the current system is that a migrant worker’s permit to work in Canada is connected to a specific employer.

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“A perfect system is one where everyone in the country has full and permanent immigration status,” Hussan said. “That doesn’t mean they have to stay, but permanent residency is the mechanism through which you get your rights.”

The federal government has pledged $58.6 million toward “strengthening” the Temporary Foreign Worker program, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office said in a statement on Friday.

The office also noted the government has since last summer allowed workers who are being mistreated to apply for an open permit, rather than an employer-specific permit, so they can apply to other jobs in Canada.

A perfect system is one where everyone in the country has full and permanent immigration status

Syed Hussan

“Their current employer will be investigated, subject to fines, banned from hiring foreign workers and/or face a possible criminal investigation,” the minister’s spokesperson Marielle Hossack said in an email. “As the Prime Minister said, we need to reimagine our Temporary Foreign Worker program and how we can better protect workers.”

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council said 59,500 of the 227,194 employees on farms were temporary foreign workers in 2017 — the last year data was available — up from 43,500 in 2014.

Even with that infusion, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture reported in 2017 that roughly 16,500 farm jobs were left vacant, potentially representing $2.5 billion in lost sales.

“Nobody wants to do that work in those conditions and for those wages, including migrants. That’s why they’re organizing,” Hussan said. “Look, our entire position is that we don’t want an immigration system that has temporary labour.”

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Migrant workers on a farm in Ontario.
Migrant workers on a farm in Ontario. Photo by Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network files

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, which represents roughly 13,000 workers in the agriculture sector, called for similar measures in a report last week.

The union’s list of recommendations also include making union representation a necessary condition of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program as a way of protecting the country’s “most precarious and vulnerable worker population.”

Santiago Escobar, a national representative at UFCW, said unionizing farm workers won’t increase the cost of food, and suggested unionized farm operations make for happier, healthier employees and smoother production.

“The standards within agriculture are very low,” he said.

But Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said farms turn to temporary foreign workers partly because they can’t always attract Canadians at the wages they’re able to offer, but also because the seasonal jobs are short-lived and physically demanding.

“You can’t tell me that working at a local coffee shop is paying anybody $20 an hour,” she said, adding that she was offering more than $20 an hour to work on her Prince Edward Island farm and struggled to fill vacancies. “I don’t think it can be framed entirely about a wage issue.”

The standards within agriculture are very low

Santiago Escobar

Farms have struggled for decades under what is known as a “cost-price” squeeze, which Fraser at the Arrell Institute characterized as a steady rise in input costs while commodity prices for agriculture products trend downward.

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Robinson said a significant increase in labour costs would force many farms to shutter, since farmers aren’t able to pass their cost increases on to the commodities market.

“The consolidation of the power in the grocery business in Canada, that’s a very interesting component in all this,” she said, referencing Walmart Canada’s recent decision to offset the costs of a $3.5-billion infrastructure investment by charging suppliers extra fees.

“Those suppliers, who are the ones who buy raw product from farmers, they’re getting squeezed, so you can be guaranteed that that squeeze is going to be felt down the line.”

Simply put, Canadian farms rely on temporary foreign workers to fill a major labour gap, and so the CFA is trying to root out any abusers and deal with them accordingly.

“Anyone I know who uses temporary foreign workers on their farm, they treat their workers the way you would treat someone you want to come back to work the next day and do a good job,” Robinson said, adding that farmers spend thousands of dollars in housing, transport, translation services and application fees to bring workers to their farms.

“It is a sizable investment, so I just don’t understand how anybody can make that investment and then mistreat workers. It’s not good business sense and it’s not the human thing to do either.”

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