Seasonal agricultural workers live on Alberta farms, and their lives are surveilled and monitored. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Encalada Grez

Working at the bottom of the food chain

The reality of agricultural migrant workers in Alberta.

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This past Thanksgiving Sunday, Miguel Perez walked onto a stage two-and-a-half hours outside Calgary at a lunch for Mexican migrant farm workers.

The group was singing karaoke as an ice-breaker, and Perez (whose name has been changed) chose “Que si me duele tu adiós,” a sad Mexican song about lost love. With his emotions close to the surface, he crooned in Spanish to around 50 workers and volunteers: “What if your goodbye hurts, and I was silent?”

In the crowd was Karla Vazquez, secretary and outreach director for the Calgary Association of Mexicans, the volunteer group that organized the lunch.

After singing, Perez told Vazquez that his brother had died in Mexico two weeks before, but he wasn't able to attend the funeral. They were quite close and Miguel’s mental health was suffering.

Workers are told at orientation in Mexico that they are only allowed to leave the farm when a spouse, parent or child dies—not a sibling. And although they can request special permission, not many workers can afford to quarantine for 14 days when they return to Canada.

“They’re so alone,” said Vazquez, referring to the migrant workers she’s been visiting weekly since June. “They show you pictures of the children they’re missing, the weddings they’re missing. They’re away from everything so that [Canadians] can have a pumpkin.”

Their lack of permanent status, the power imbalances in the system, and the precarious nature of their work leaves them among the country’s most vulnerable.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of our food supply chain, leading almost one in five Canadians to grow their own food for the first time, according to Dalhousie University. But while Albertans tend to their gardens and preserve their fall harvest, it’s important not to look away from the thousands of migrant workers on whom our food security depends.

Doing the jobs Canadians refuse

Vazquez works with Mexican migrants in Alberta, many of whom work on farms with decent living conditions and humane employers who respect workers’ rights. But there are also workers sweating through PPE in overcrowded meat-packing plants, growing mushrooms in ammonia-filled barns, and enduring racist managers.

Temporary foreign workers account for at least 20% of all agricultural workers in Canada and 6% in Alberta. But even after decades spent doing “3D jobs”—too dangerous, dirty, and demeaning for citizens—the vast majority of migrant workers will never be able to bring their families while they work here or apply for permanent residency.

Their lack of permanent status, the power imbalances in the system, and the precarious nature of their work leaves them among the country’s most vulnerable—even while being deemed “essential workers” in a pandemic.

Migrants in Canada are 11 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the average Canadian citizen.

The pandemic is opening Canadians’ eyes to just how pivotal these racialized workers are, but also how vulnerable. According to the New York Times, migrants in Canada are 11 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the average Canadian citizen. And advocates are calling for justice with large-scale fixes like a pathway to citizenship, but also more incremental demands like income support and paid sick leave.

Migrant workers are technically protected by legislation such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Human Rights Act, but enacting those safeguards can be near impossible as complex choices are forced upon migrants despite Canadian labour and immigration laws.

Vazquez described the situation Mexican workers face at honey farms in rural Alberta, where they are responsible for removing the honeycombs from the hives—a task that angers the bees and requires protection. Although they are given bee suits, Vazquez explains that workers don’t always wear them because the suits make them slow, whereas the employer requires speed.

This “dichotomy between protection and production” means workers are just stung repeatedly. When Vazquez asked how they deal with that, they told her they close their eyes and breathe. The longest they’d seen a Canadian survive in that role? Eight hours.

Seasonal agricultural workers live on the farms, and their lives are surveilled and monitored.

Like most other Mexican agricultural workers in Alberta, these beekeepers came here through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), a bilateral agreement that brings workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to Canada for up to eight months a year.

Surviving in an ‘apartheid system’

At the heart of this article there should be a migrant voice, but too many are afraid of reprisal. Not only is this a very busy time in agriculture, but visitors of a “political nature” would be strictly disallowed on many farms. Additionally, it can be difficult for them to get half an hour off for a Service Canada call, for instance, let alone speak to the media.

Seasonal agricultural workers live on the farms, and their lives are surveilled and monitored; they’re told when they can leave and who can visit—sometimes visitors aren’t allowed at all, or only visitors of the same sex.

They are also tied to their employer, so they can’t seek other work if the conditions are unsafe or abusive. Significantly, the employer has the power of choosing which workers will return next season, and can also send them home on a whim.

And unlike high-skilled foreign workers, SAWP workers can’t bring their families with them, and have no pathway to permanent residency. Too many come to Canada not knowing these facts.

Furthermore, most migrant workers have families at home who depend on their wages and employment year upon year, so they often suppress their concerns and push through strains, breaks, heartbreak, and bee stings.

Entering the farms, she said, is like entering another universe — an apartheid system.”

Workers who come through the larger Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) are somewhat less controlled by their employer, but they’re more vulnerable to abuses from recruiters and agents seeking profit—or who give workers false hope about their chances to stay as residents or bring their families.

According to a 2020 Parkland Institute report, some workers may be charged up to $12,000 just for the chance of employment. On arrival, many find the pay or hours are much lower than advertised, or that the job just doesn’t exist.

Evelyn Encalada Grez, an assistant professor in the labour studies program at Simon Fraser University and a founding member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, has been visiting migrant workers across Canada for over two decades. Entering the farms, she said, is like entering another universe—“an apartheid system.”

Not only are the racialized workers physically separated from the nearby white communities (particularly in Alberta, she says), but the resources and services they have available to them are worlds apart.

When SAWP migrants lose their job, they’re sent home. When TFWs lose theirs, they might try to find other work.

A common suggestion is that workers simply need to “know their rights,” said Encalada Grez, but it’s more complicated than that. “If they know their rights and assert them,” she said, “they can be sent back to their home countries, and that means that they will not be able to eat or get by. Or that their children won’t be able to finish school because they might have to go into the labour force.”

When SAWP migrants lose their job, they’re sent home. When TFWs lose theirs, they might try to find other work—but many end up undocumented in that plight.

Parkland’s report states that up to 20,000 temporary foreign workers are without status in Alberta—even though they were invited, followed the rules, and did nothing illegal. These people live in the margins, doing what they must, but lacking even the few protections they had as temporary workers.

Migrants from the global South have unique dreams and goals, but the reasons they end up in Canada ring true for many.

Marco Luciano is the director of Migrante Alberta, a non-profit that provides primarily Filipino migrants with self-help and advocacy, and he wants people to think about migration as more than just workers going back and forth; it’s connected to centuries of colonial, and then neoliberal, economic strategies.

In the current stage of neoliberal globalization, if you’re not rich, your migration is forced.

Marco Luciano,

Director of Migrante Alberta

“The system of migration from Mexico to Canada is not something that just came out of the sky because people ‘wanted to leave,’” Luciano said. “In the current stage of neoliberal globalization, if you’re not rich, your migration is forced—you’re forced out of your country.”

Luciano emphasized Canada’s extractivist mining projects in countries like his native Philippines, but also through Central and South America. Some estimates say up to a quarter of Mexican territory is ceded to mining companies, 70% of which are Canadian, according to Global Affairs.

Workers are often displaced through those mining operations, come to Canada as seasonal or temporary agricultural workers, and then are denied the opportunities other higher-skilled workers are given. In light of the hundreds of years of colonialism the global South endured, the irony is fierce.

Bob Barnetson, professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, also puts migrant labour into a provincial context. Not only is farm work one of Canada’s most dangerous industries, but Alberta’s safety framework—from fatigue management to equipment usage—is pitiful in comparison to other provinces.

Farm workers can no longer unionize, and aren’t included in the labour code.

In 2019, the UCP passed Bill 26, a roll-back of the NDP’s provisions in the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. Farm workers can no longer unionize, and aren’t included in the labour code.

And instead of Workers’ Compensation, farms with more than five employees can now buy private insurance, which is unlikely to pay anything out or follow an injured worker back to their home country—but is cheaper.

When asked how Albertans can advocate, Barnetson replied, “under this government, there is no chance that farm workers’ rights will improve.”

Rights are not enough

But even if improved, Encalada Grez emphasizes that rights are not enough. The complaint-based system on farms means workers are reluctant to be whistle-blowers lest they lose their jobs, so she wants to see snap inspections and a risk-free way to denounce unsafe practices.

Her organization, Justicia for Migrant Workers, seeks to raise awareness for these injustices and create space for workers to organize without being repatriated—an issue that’s been ignored by the traditional labour movement.

There are no incentives for employers to better working conditions.

Evelyn Encalada Grez,

Assistant professor of labour studies, SFU

“This is a time for Canadians to push for permanent status for migrant workers who want to remain in Canada, who want to bring their families, who want to have labour mobility,” Encalada Grez said.

“There are no incentives for employers to better working conditions when they have bound labour that are subjected to whatever working conditions they impose.”

Encalada Grez also reminds Canadians to not look away from the “transnational emotions” of these individuals. She’s passionate about labour policies, health-care access, and grassroots activism; but she also carries with her the stories of the mothers who leave for Canada in the middle of the night while their families are sleeping, so their goodbyes don’t traumatize their children.

This is why community groups like Migrante Alberta and the Calgary Association of Mexicans drive all over Alberta donating PPE, winter coats and cookware to the migrants hidden down dusty backroads.

However, as Marco Luciano notes, this isn’t just about doing charity work because people “feel bad”—it’s about listening to these individuals’ dreams and demands. On Sunday, October 18, Justicia is urging Canadians to participate in a Digital Day of Action to amplify the issues migrant workers face.

While Vazquez can’t fix the feelings of loss or worry, she just wants them to know: They’re not alone.”

Although the Calgary Association of Mexicans “basically runs on bake sales,” Vazquez says, she sees the immense power of kindness. She noted the warmth of the farm manager who made the Thanksgiving lunch possible, but one last story stands out for her about that day.

After dolling out gifts, Vazquez was approached by a man who was maybe in his sixties. He said he had just arrived three days ago, and carefully handed her a jar of mole. “I don’t have any other way to say thank you,” the man told Vazquez.

Growing up in Northern Mexico, Vazquez would just buy the rich, spicy sauce bottled because it’s so labour intensive to make. But this man carried the mole his sister made all the way from his home in the South of Mexico; Vazquez immediately knew how special this gift was.

He told her he’s been in the same program for 12 years, and that this was the first time anyone had ever visited his workplace outside of other farm workers.

“Those are the things that make my heart grow three sizes,” Vazquez told The Sprawl—even if it breaks each time she tells someone there’s no way to bring their family. While she can’t fix the feelings of loss or worry, she just wants them to know: “They’re not alone.”

Brianna Sharpe is a freelance journalist covering LGBTQ2S+ issues, politics, parenting, and more. She lives on a mini-acreage in the Alberta foothills with her family.



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