Harvesting Injustice

Illustration of a brown hand holding a tomato. The text reads "harvesting freedom: the year 2016 is the 50th year that migrants workers have been putting food on our table.

The Erasure of Migrant Workers From our Rural Landscape

By Chris Ramsaroop

Illustration by J4MW

For nearly two decades Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) has organized with migrant farmworkers across Ontario to confront the injustices labourers have faced working in our fields. This struggle has taken many forms: protests, mass organizing meetings, legal challenges, and media exposures. J4MW’s work has focused on addressing the pillars of an apartheid system that relegate migrant workers to an indentured system of labour while working in Canada.  Temporary migrant workers are always seen as mobile, transient between Canada and their home country matter how long they have worked in Canada.

When employed under  Canada’s temporary foreign worker program; migrant farmworkers are tied to an employer, denied equal access to entitlements such as healthcare and education and must return home upon completion of their contract. Two separate migration schemes operate in our fields: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Agricultural Stream under the Temporary Foreign Workers. Workers have a limited duration of employment and can not apply for permanent residency. This labour program has existed for over 51 years and is based on similar schemes that brought indentured labour in post-slavery periods.

A legal system of exclusion is probably the last thing that one would think of when visiting a local farmers market, family farm or buying produce that is marked ‘local’.  Many people claim ignorance or call this Canada’s dirty secret. Others are shocked when they hear of the abuses that occur in our own fields. Yet this isn’t a story about ignorance, or simply not knowing about the apartheid system in Canadian fields; ideology is at play in how the mythic image of Canada’s agricultural landscape is constructed. Simultaneously, racialized bodies such as migrant workers are often erased, historicized and decontextualized. Spatially, migrant workers are hidden from plain sight often being housed in bunkhouses in the back of employer’s properties.

In Min Sook Lee’s seminal documentary El Contrato, audiences gasp in one scene where an employee refers to farm employers as ‘owners’ of the thousands of migrant workers employed in the region. After seeing this scene countless times, and engaging in discussions where audiences grapple with the idea of property, ownership and racialized bodies, it’s not about what the intentions of this employer’s words and whether or not they misspoke. The reality for migrant workers are they are seen as unfree labour hence connected to both land and private property in rural Canada.

Representation in rural landscapes is critical to understanding Canada’s agricultural history. Think of the imagery that is associated with rural land. Who is seen and who is erased? Who owns the land and who does not? How has land been commodified, and by whom?  We are often told a narrative of white farmers owning vast plots of land, generation after generation. Rarely is the story about the ongoing violence that is inflicted on racialized bodies and theft of Indigenous land told. When we speak of the violence inflicted on the bodies of migrants, never do we think of the violent processes of colonialism that has uprooted migrants from their own communities to toil in our fields. Never do we think about the violence that occurs during immigration raids where migrants are forcibly removed from their workplaces for administrative infractions under Canada’s immigration system. Rarely do we think about the countless workers who are injured and killed in the production of food.  

Protestors walking down the road holding various signs. The main sign reads "justicia justice for migrant workers"
Photo by J4WM

Our work in J4MW is to dismantle the state narrative of land and food production to ensure that migrant struggles are not erased. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program, Justicia for Migrant Workers organized a 30-day caravan across Ontario. Entitled, Harvesting Freedom, the caravan visited over 30 communities and engaged with thousands of migrant workers and community allies to demand permanent residence for migrant farmworkers. Our demand is an intervention to push the boundaries of how migrant workers are positioned in relation to land. Concepts such as “seasonal” and “temporary” perpetually remove migrant workers from the image of Canada’s rural landscape. Many of the women and men who we have met over the last two decades are the same faces that come to Canada year after year, often living and working in Canada for up to eight months a year. We have met three or four generations of family members who continue to work and live in Canada.

As part of the caravan, J4MW and activists from local communities across Ontario, organized a multi-prong strategy to engage and confront the erasure of migrant labour from the rural landscape. The caravan included events such as: local community forums, town halls, movie nights, workshops, classroom presentations, community dinners, protests, marches, direct action delegations and interventions at local farmers’ markets. One of the highlights also included a roving picket of Ontario’s Food Terminal, where hundreds of activists disrupted for hours one of North America’s largest food distribution centers.

When confronting ideas of private property and production of food, farmers markets became extremely contentious spaces during the caravan. In communities like Chatham-Kent many community members had heard about the caravan and sympathized with the struggle. In whispered tones, several passersby shared experiences where they heard about a sick or injured migrant workers wrongly sent home to their country. Others who disagreed with our messaging took time to hear us out. However, not every intervention was ‘civil’. In communities such as London, and in St.Jacob, participants in the caravan were escorted off the property by police and threatened with arrest and ticketing for trespassing on private property. When questions were posed to the organizer of these farmers markets around the injustices faced by migrant workers, they countered that farmers markets are not political spaces!

As we move forward in challenging farm labour practices, we need to not only challenge government legislation but also to engage in organizing and solidarity work. We need to question who owns the land, how has the land come to be developed and how do we challenge both ideas of a food system based on a private for-profit model to a system based on a collective cooperate model. While daunting and sometimes overwhelming, there is hope and there is always a sense of resistance. It is our responsibility to fight alongside migrant workers to change the narrative of land, food and to fight in the direction where there is justice for those engaged in the production of our food.


A man in a blue shirt holding two signs. One reads "50 years justice now" and the other reads "status now! 2016 harvesting freedom"

Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with justicia for migrant workers, a grassroots activist organization that works with migrant workers employed under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program. 

Labour Rights for Migrant Workers

A illustration of man holding his child on his shoulders. text reads "migrant hope"

By: Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Illustration provided by 2019 Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative

Working for Cash? You Have Rights at Work!

It is legal to be paid in cash. Workers can get paid in cash for a variety of jobs, such as construction, cleaning, day labour, employment through temp agencies, work in the service industry and more. 

If you get paid in cash but don’t have a Social Insurance Number, valid Work Permit, or don’t have immigration status, you still have rights under basic labour laws. 

It is important to be prepared in case your rights are violated at work. Keeping detailed records about your work, pay, and employer will help you defend your rights, get the wages you are owed, or file a complaint. 

Protect yourself: 

Keep your own record of the number of hours, dates and location of where you worked, and any problems that happen. Keep this information at home or on your personal cell phone. 

Write down how much you have been paid. Keep copies of any email transfers, receipts from payday loan or cash stores, or other evidence that shows your employer pays you. If possible, deposit all your cash into a bank account so that you can use your bank statements as evidence. 

Write down any information about your boss and the company that you can find: name, title, work and home address, phone numbers, license plate number. 

Keep records of any communication you have with your employer: texts, emails, phone calls, letters. 

If you have been working for cash, you may still qualify for EI (Employment Insurance). It is very important to have your own record of your hours worked and wages paid. Apply for EI as soon as you stop working. 

Your employer does not need to know your address. You can give your employer another address if you do not feel safe providing your real one. You may want to use an address where you can collect your mail. 

Only share information about your immigration status with people you trust. 

If you think your rights have been violated, call the Workers’ Action Centre immediately to get help. All calls are free and confidential. 

Getting Paid 

It is legal to be paid in cash but you must still be paid at least the minimum wage. Your employer must give you a record or “pay slip” every time you are paid. It should say how many hours you have worked, your pay rate, overtime, public holiday pay, vacation, and deductions taken for taxes, Employment Insurance (EI) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).   

A boss who pays you in cash may not want to give you a payslip because they want to avoid paying their employer contributions, such as EI or taxes. Even if you don’t get a pay slip, you still have rights. It is important to have your own record of your hours worked and wages paid. 

No Status? Undocumented? No work permit? 

If you are working without a valid Social Insurance Number (SIN) or work permit, or you do not have any status, you still have rights under basic labour laws. This includes employment standards, health and safety, human rights and workers’ compensation for injured on the job. You can file a claim at the Ministry of Labour if your rights have been violated. Provincial Labour Ministries are not supposed to share immigration information with the federal government. The Ministry of Labour can get you the wages you are owed even if you have left the country. 

Many of us who are undocumented are afraid of losing our jobs or being deported if we speak out about problems at work. But there are ways to protect ourselves when we are fighting for our unpaid wages or defending our rights. 

Email us for help. All emails are confidential. Please let us know where you live and we will connect you to the closest support center. 


Migrant Workers Alliance for Change 

info@migrantworkersalliance.org 

If you are in Ontario, contact 

Workers’ Action Centre:          

416-531-0778     

Toll Free: 1-866-531-0778      

http://www.workersactioncentre.org