Bonafacio Eugenio Romera, 31 years old
Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24 years old
Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55
All three of these men from Mexico died this summer from Covid-19 working on farms in Ontario, growing our food. Migrant workers have been facing unsafe working conditions for decades, and dozens have died on the job in Ontario in that time.
The average Ontarian has no idea that our food system relies on about 20,000 migrant farm workers coming to this province alone every season to grow our food. You don’t see their faces. You don’t hear their voices. You don’t hear their stories. You don’t know how it feels for them to leave their families behind for months, to risk their lives, to come and work the jobs Canadians don’t want to do. You don’t hear about their harsh working conditions or about their horrible living and housing conditions. You don’t hear about how they are exempt from most labour laws that are in place to protect almost all other workers in Ontario. All you see is the fruit of their labour, perfectly arranged on grocery store shelves.
Most people in Ontario and so-called Canada are blind to the realities and horrors that are behind what we put on our plates. This disconnection is literally life-threatening.
I have worked alongside a migrant farm worker named Roberto Garcia Lopez at a farm outside of Peterborough. I can truly say that I have never been treated so horribly in a workplace as I was at that farm. Me and the other interns fled that place as quickly as we could, once we realized what the working conditions were going to be like. We suffered through verbal abuse, yelling, emotional abuse, and sometimes worked up to 18 hrs a day without adequate breaks. Because of our privilege, we were able to speak up, and leave that situation to go work on other farms. Roberto did not have that option. Migrant farm workers are tied to their employers, in that it is very hard for them to speak out or up for their rights without the risk of getting sent home. Transferring to another farm is next to impossible for migrant workers due to the process involved. If they are sick or injured, they are often let-go from their jobs, instead of given time to heal and return to work. From 2001-2011, 787 migrant farm workers were returned to their country of origin by their employers for this reason. The conditions they endure in order to make a living would be unfathomable to most Canadians. It is no wonder there is a worker gap to fill 50,000 agricultural jobs in Canada. Food work is one of the most under-valued and exploited labour sectors in this country. Yet it is deemed to be 100% essential and critical to our survival.
How then is it possible that the Ford & Trudeau Governments continue to allow farm-workers who test positive for Covid-19 but are asymptomatic to continue working? This is after hundreds and hundreds of workers have been infected on the same farms, and three have died. Where else would have this been acceptable??? In what other workplace? How is it that all levels of government allow dozens of workers to live in cramped trailers and run-down housing with bunkbeds, sometimes only divided with cardboard, without adequate bathroom facilities or access to water for hand-washing?
If all of these workers were given status, they would have the rights and confidence to speak out about these deplorable conditions. They would offer an essential voice to the story of Canada’s food system, that we never hear because of the consequences they face if they speak up. They could advocate for better working conditions on all farms, for all farm workers, and wake people up to the reality and fragility of what lies behind the slogan “Good things grow in Ontario.” They would be able to fight for respect, dignity, safety, better wages, and better access to health care. In my opinion, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is just one of Canada’s dirty little secrets that all levels of government have tried to keep under wraps for decades. Covid-19 is shining light into this disgraceful shadow of the food industry. People living in Ontario and so-called Canada need to speak up for those who can not. We must demand Status for all.
Take Action: Add your name to the Open Letter calling for Status for All, signed by 280+ organizations representing 8million+ people!
~ Written by Fionna Tough, agricultural worker.