From ideas to collaborative action: Seeking feedback on our Know Farm Workers, Know Food blog series

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Author: Anelyse Weiler

Posted: April 9, 2015

Categories: GoodFoodBites / News from Sustain Ontario


Between March 24-31st, Sustain Ontario published a blog series called Know Farm Workers, Know Food: Sustaining Ontario migrant labour livelihoods that explored some positive possibilities for advancing health equity and better livelihoods with migrant farm workers in Ontario. The six articles in the series share actionable ideas that were proposed by people involved in a diverse range of migrant farm employment, including farmers, farm workers, health professionals, farm industry, non-profits, and farm worker advocacy organizations. Our interviews with these individuals formed part of an ongoing community-university research project between Sustain Ontario and the University of Toronto.

Without a doubt, migrant farm worker employment is a contentious topic. Our goal in the blog series was, in the words of one farmer we interviewed, to move the conversation beyond “finger pointing and divisiveness,” and to rethink systems of farm employment that better meet everyone’s needs. In addition to the encouraging feedback we received on our blog series, here are a few of the critical questions readers raised:

Why use the term ‘migrant worker’?

This is a tricky one. One reader felt that the term ‘migrant’ refers to farm workers in the U.S. who experience economic hardship, and who migrate to different regions according to job availability and the cycle of the harvest season. In this person’s opinion, farm workers hired via Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program experience superior job conditions than U.S. farm workers. Accordingly, this reader expressed that the term ‘migrant’ villainizes farm industry and employers and doesn’t fairly represent farm job conditions in Canada.

When we asked Twitter followers whether the term ‘migrant’ was farmer-friendly, Justicia for Migrant Workers shared the following perspectives:

Justicia Twitter conversation

In our interview with Justicia for Migrant Workers, organizer Evelyn Encalada also expressed the view that people should think critically about government labels like ‘Temporary Foreign Worker.’ For instance, the formal definition of this term portrays migrants as filling a ‘temporary’ labour shortage. However, some migrant farm workers have been working in Canada each season for decades, so this term isn’t entirely accurate. In addition, the word ‘foreign’ or ‘offshore’ can have xenophobic connotations, and it doesn’t reflect the fact that many migrants have meaningful social ties to communities like the Niagara region, which hosts an annual Farm Workers Welcome Concert. Far from being ‘foreign,’ migrants hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have been a familiar part of Ontario’s food system since the 1960s. Finally, the formal use of the word ‘worker’ in ‘Temporary Foreign Worker’ can subtly encourage people to forget that the people categorized under this label are, of course, more than just economic units of labour.

In our blog series, we decided to draw on the term ‘migrant’ because it is commonly used in both the mainstream media and academic literature to describe a person who is hired through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to work on a farm, but who doesn’t have access to permanent residency or citizenship status. Clearly, this term isn’t perfect, and we are very open to other suggestions (including preferred terms from migrants themselves)!

Why did Sustain Ontario participate in an awareness week organized by a U.S. student group?

In the United States, Farmworker Awareness Week is organized by a group called Student Action with Farmworkers. One of that student group’s numerous sponsors and partners includes a union.

By publishing our blog series during this week, we were not implying that the Canadian context of farm employment is the same as the U.S., or that unionization is necessarily the best or the only solution to the many challenges of healthy and equitable farm employment in Canada. In the final blog post in our series, we highlight some of the distinct difficulties facing farm workers in the United States, along with the controversies around farm unionization in Canada. However, we think cross-border conversations and learning about success stories from elsewhere can help address some of the challenges of farm employment in Ontario.

Does Canada’s migrant farm worker program displace jobs for ‘locals’?

Farm employers throughout Canada report facing shortages of farm labour, especially during busy parts in the farming season. Every season, farmers who hire workers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) have to fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment demonstrating that they tried to employ Canadian citizens or permanent residents, but that none were available. Notably, migrant farm workers often have strong farming skills that Canadian citizens and permanent residents lack.

Critics of the TFWP say that if wages and working conditions were improved, Canadian citizens and permanent residents would be more willing to apply for farm jobs. However, this raises the conundrum of the ‘cost-price squeeze‘ discussed in our blog series; labour costs are very expensive, and farmers face pressure to make a living by setting competitive food prices. Food supply chain actors like retailers and restaurants are also part of this equation. And, for that matter, so are all individual eaters who buy food.

More broadly, this query raises interesting questions about who gets considered as a ‘local.’ As noted earlier, migrant farm workers contribute to Ontario’s communities in vital ways each season, while simultaneously supporting families and other loved ones in their sending communities. Although it’s certainly not the most important of their contributions, migrants also pay taxes into Canadian social benefit programs they often cannot access, thus subsidizing the social safety net for Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Along these lines, how is a ‘local’ person defined, and what is meant by ‘jobs for locals’?

From ideas to action

We’re excited by the enthusiasm and support we received for continuing this exploratory conversation: How can we better support the health and dignity of migrant farm workers, while simultaneously ensuring economic viability for producers and healthy, affordable food for all eaters? Having gathered a large pool of ideas, we now intend to bring stakeholders together to develop consensus on which ideas we can collaboratively bring to fruition.

Here are a few ways you can participate:

  • Complete the short survey at the bottom of this page
  • Participate at a Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS) interactive session on June 1st, 2015 in Ottawa that further explores these ideas. If you aren’t attending as an academic but would still like to participate in the session, please email
  • Webinar: Several people indicated they would like to continue this conversation through a webinar, which we are hoping to organize this summer.
  • Bring Food Home: Sustain Ontario intends to host a workshop on this topic as part of our biennial conference (Nov 20-22nd, 2015 in Sudbury)
  • If you have other comments or questions, feel free to comment on this post, Tweet @SustainOntario or post on Sustain Ontario’s Facebook page, or email

How should Sustain Ontario take action on this issue? Please share your thoughts in the following short survey.

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