To Anelyse Weiler, crops rotting in the fields and alleged violations of migrant workers’ rights are just two sides of the same coin.

That relationship is essential to modern food production in Canada, explained the professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, and one that puts farmers and their foreign employees in difficult positions — but for different reasons.

“The food system has positioned producers, including farmers and farm workers, in a pinch point,” said Weiler.

“It’s one of the expected outcomes of a globalized, capitalist food system. That's one of the directions that we could predict from the system that we’ve adopted to feed ourselves, and it’s one that we take for granted.”

“At the base of any sustainable, secure food system, workers' rights have to be foregrounded,” Anelyse Weiler, a professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, said. Photo by Simon Fraser Univeristy/Flickr.

COVID-19 laid bare cracks in that system. Cracks that run deeper than disrupted supply chains and empty shelves. Cracks that tie together sky-high farm debt, land speculation, and Canada’s reliance on migrant agricultural workers.

That’s because the prices farmers receive for their products often don’t cover their costs of production, a situation that’s largely been caused by consolidation at both ends of their production cycle.

Most mid- to large-scale farms sell to a few major grocery chains and food processors, the result of decades of consolidation in the industry in both Canada and the United States. This, in turn, allows those companies to set their preferred buying price — and these are often lower than the farmers’ costs of production.

Meanwhile, the cost to grow food has risen exponentially in the past 30 years.

“Over the last three decades, the agribusiness corporations that supply fertilizers, chemicals, machinery, fuels, technologies, services, credit, and other materials and services captured 95 per cent of all farm revenue,” noted a 2019 report by the National Farmers Union.

Farmland has also seen its value skyrocket since the Second World War, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to compete against other, more lucrative uses — golf courses or shopping malls, for instance.

“The food system has positioned producers, including farmers and farm workers, in a pinch point,” said Weiler. “It’s one of the expected outcomes of a globalized, capitalist food system."

Combined, these factors have pushed Canadian farm debt to skyrocket, reaching $106 billion in 2019.

Since the 1980s, Canadian farmers' net incomes (green/red) have seen minimal growth, while their gross revenue (blue) has grown exponentially. This is because, despite strong sales, their costs of production have increased significantly. Graph by the National Farmers' Union. Data by Statistics Canada.

“Farmers have made the case that labour is one of the few variable costs they can control when they’re facing a price squeeze,” Weiler said.

That’s where migrant workers come in.

In the 1970s, Canada started developing a suite of temporary work permits designed to help Canadian employers fill specific labour needs with foreign workers — without giving them a means to emigrate permanently.

Two of these permits — the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program’s agricultural stream — were designed specifically to supply Canadian farmers with workers.

Since they were established, these programs have become essential for Canadian farmers, Weiler explained.

In 2019, 58,800 people came to Canada through these two programs. About 10,950 went to B.C., most of them Mexicans arriving through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

That number decreased by about 17 per cent nationwide this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In B.C. this year, there were 39 per cent fewer workers in the province as of August, compared to the same period in 2019.

“Many migrant workers have extensive experience and training from repeated years of coming back to work in Canada,” Weiler said. “But their experience and expertise isn’t materially rewarded in the same way that we would see in other kinds of industries.”

Most of the Mexican workers hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have farms in Mexico or come from a farming background. This isn't a coincidence — soon after NAFTA was implemented, in 1994, Mexico was flooded with cheap U.S. corn. That put many farmers out of business, forcing them to find more lucrative work abroad. Remittances (money sent from abroad) now make up about three per cent of the country's GDP and are particularly important in poorer and rural parts of the country. Photo by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson

Most of the Mexican workers hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program are farmers or have a farming background, Hugo Velázquez, an official at the Mexican Consulate who helps co-ordinate the program, said.

The program allows B.C. farmers to request specific workers by name — about 80 per cent of the Mexican workers in B.C. get their visa this way, he said — and many go back to the same farm year after year. Workers’ visas are tied to their employer, meaning they can’t change farms once they get to Canada.

Despite this continuity, they’re still usually paid about minimum wage to spend hours performing back-breaking and often dangerous work on farms.

It’s a job that only makes sense compared to the migrant workers’ possible earnings farming back home, explained Velázquez. If they were farming in Mexico, they’d be making roughly 200 Mexican pesos a day (about $12) compared to roughly $115 in B.C.

That means they’re willing to work for less than Canadians with similar levels of experience, a fact evidenced by Canadian farmers’ consistent failure to find reliable local employees.

It’s a discrepancy Amy Cohen, a professor of anthropology at Okanagan College whose research focuses on the experiences of migrant workers in B.C., said exposes deep flaws in the program.

“The power imbalance is so intense that workers are really incentivized to do anything that can please their employer or not anger them in any way,” she said.

Cohen said workers will hide injuries, won't complain about bad working or living conditions, and avoid criticism of their employers to Canadian or Mexican authorities to ensure their contract will be renewed yearly.

The issue is particularly acute for women.

“Women are under a lot more pressure to maintain their positions because there are fewer options for them to obtain work on another farm, so they are incentivized in that way to put up with a lot more,” Cohen said.

“Also, for the female workers, they are mostly single mothers — whereas men are married — and these women are primary breadwinners without the support of a spouse.”

It’s a situation she said could be significantly improved if migrant workers were given permanent residency upon arrival — or at least an open work permit that would allow them to move between different employers.

It’s an issue Cohen has been lobbying the federal government on alongside several migrant workers’ rights organizations across the country.

Velázquez said that doesn’t align with his experience visiting farms and talking to workers. Most are relatively content with their situation, and the consulate tries to respond diligently to complaints of abuse. Many workers also don’t want to stay in Canada, he said.

“Farmers are very attached to their land, and many of them are like, ‘This is nice, but I just want to go home to my family.’”

Farm debt has nearly doubled since 2000, reaching about $106 billion. It's the result of a system that is pinching farmers, encouraging them to cut costs by hiring migrant farm workers who work better — and for less pay — than Canadians. Graph by the National Farmers Union. Data by Statistics Canada.

Still, whatever its value for Canadian farmers and the temporary migrants working for them, the program is symptomatic of deeper issues in B.C.’s food system, Weiler said.

It’s critical to rethink the idea that if Canadian can’t hire cheap foreign labour, the entire system will collapse, she said. If farms can’t break even by paying their workers a Canadian living wage, it points to a fundamental devaluation of food — and the labour and resources needed to produce it.

“I think it’s something we really need to look at as a society and to think about what we value. I think there’s appetite for change — and there’s a lot to consider.”

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer

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Machinery suppliers, fertiliser and seed suppliers, food processors, big chain grocers are all big companies that can force prices in their favour, but the farmer, even big ones, are too small to force prices their way. Is that not why there was once a Wheat boat? Is that not why Québec maple syrup is sold by a consortium. Egg and milk prices are controlled by government supply boards. Farmers could also form some kind of supply organisation.

The farmer's co-operative is an old structure that worked collectively for generations on the Prairies. My grandparents arrived from eastern Europe in 1902 and 1906 respectively and homesteaded in northern Alberta, originally in a nearly cashless economy, trading labour and sharing the cost of machinery with a percentage of their crop sales. Horses and oxen were important work animals and lived primarily off the land, reproducing naturally at little cost to the farmer. But it was a tough life and it killed my grandfather from an injury at 56. Mind you, my grandmother lived to 96.

Today one can envision large market garden farms at the periphery of our cities specifically to feed the city residents. A 50 kilometre diet is possible. California drought, exacerbated by climate change and water mismanagement may teach Canadians a very hard lesson about over dependence on imported vital elements like food. It is ironic that Canada may become the bread basket of the continent as the growing season moves north. The long, northern days catalyze photosynthesis, and solar greenhouses makes year round food production possible. We have some of the most productive soils in the world, and with conservation tillage and other regenerative agricultural practices crop yield and incomes can increase while maintenance, fuel, fertilizer and transportation costs are reduced compared to today's industrial model of agriculture. Soil conservation techniques combined with nutrient-fixing, carbon-absorbing plants can together comprise a massive carbon sink that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

As for the cost of farm land, zoning for protected green belts could help. Enacting BC's Agricultural Land Reserve permanently slowed the rate of increase in land value of farming land. By comparison, upzoning unprotected farm land to residential subdivisions instantly increases the value of the land by orders of magnitude. Agricultural areas close to BC's most expensive cities are still more expensive than other farming jurisdictions. This is where the co-operative model could have a role, with help from all levels of government if necessary. Leasing a co-op farm plot instead of buying it will bring land cost stability to farming families while also promoting co-operation and sharing widely within the organization. This would especially apply to market gardens near cities where large publicly-owned or subsidized acreages protected by permanent agricultural zoning leased to small farmers will provide a counterbalance to the private farms. Revising our currently lax labour labour standards to better reflect the values of the larger society is also a required accompaniment to the above ideas.

The pandemic is making it abundantly clear that a society-wide transformation to food security and labour justice through self-sufficiency is now high on the agenda.

how much does voting with my wallet by shopping at farmers market ,getting meat and eggs directly from a local farmer and buying as much locally made goods make? I do it cause it makes sense to avoid big agro/ Weston etc as much as possible for all kinds of reasons. But I have no clear idea how many fellow citizens are doing it , and if it makes a dent at all in the capitalist global big agro system.

My motto , for my conscience is, in all consumption " somebody is paying for this if I am not" ( As in cheap anything if not bought directly from the producer, the worker who actually made or harvested it is paying in dollars or health probably).
Having said that, I have enough income to invest in local. But low income is not always an excuse not to buy local: communal kitchens, for instance and Bartering services is a world over way people have always lived. In fact the "poorer" a community, the more barter and no money exchanged is how the world turns.

If we had a vision of what life should be like in Canada we could resist capitalism and globalization in support of achieving that vision. We'd have to set aside our individual interests to support the national one, but it could be done.
I muse about a national consensus on what our highest priorities are. Maybe something like the Conservative leadership voting is needed, with everyone ranking their priorities, and the ones to receive attention being the few that come to the top of most Canadians lists. I wonder where agricultural reform would land?

Re:Migrant farm workers
It never is pointed out that Canadian farmers,processors and manufacturers automatically include the cost of taxes in their product price. Taxes are 42% of our GNP. Canadian producers must compete with the price for imported food products that pay nothing toward our social services. We should do away with the graduated income tax and instead have a graduated consumption tax on the total consumption of each Canadian. That is not more tax but the same amount more fairly and less costly administered. If we really want to help our workers, farmers and processors we would also restore direct import taxes as we had when we had a flourishing economy, 50 and 100 years ago. We might also restrict the importation of those goods we produce ourselves which would reduce our trade deficit.
Edd Twohig