Patterned Migrants

Today, buying Canadian produce has greater significance than simply supporting domestic farmers. There is a good chance that the apple from BC or tomato from Ontario that you bought was picked by a Mexican or Jamaican seasonal worker.

Traditionally, there has been a critical shortage of domestic seasonal workers available when needed to plant, maintain and harvest crops. The past four decades have seen a radical transformation of rural life as family farms have given way to larger agglomerated agribusinesses. Importing cheap farm labour is a global practice. It has been intensified by bilateral government programs that have given people in the global south little choice but to leave home to find work. Canada’s labour mobility program, referred to as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), has brought over 73,000 Mexican agricultural workers to the country over the last 36 years. Currently, the program draws 19,000 migrant workers.

These agricultural workers are a growing presence. Ontario, whose agricultural sector expanded 90 percent between 1994 and 2000, takes 85 percent of SAWP participants; it is the linchpin of a $3.6 billion industry. This success was marked late last year by the expansion of Mexico’s consular network into Leamington, Ontario, which, as Canada’s “tomato capital,” has the largest concentration of workers in SAWP. Recently featured in Min Sook Lee’s film El Contrato, Leamington is one of the largest centres of greenhouses in North America. Each year, the town’s population swells with the arrival of over 4,000 migrant workers.

From six weeks to eight months, these guest labourers plant, tend, harvest and/or package in greenhouses and food-processing plants. The farm workers live in trailers and bunkhouses provided by the farms. Their wages are equivalent to Canadian agricultural workers, from which CPP, EI, visa and flight deductions are made, leaving the migrant workers with little savings.

Just like Ontario’s other 100,000 farm workers, these migrant workers are the lowest-paid worker by occupational grouping and suffer a high rate of workplace accidents, injuries, illnesses and fatalities. They are exposed to chemical pesticides and fertilizers, they are unprotected from abuse by their host employer, and, as migrant workers, they do not have the same rights and benefits as Canadians. Little regulation is in place to ensure adequate living standards.

SAWP is important for both Canada and countries like Mexico or Jamaica. For farmers, the program is a way to get relatively cheap, reliable labour that they depend on to stay in business. The workers are paid more than they would make at home and have greater purchasing power. The Mexican government relies heavily on workers’ remittances from their wages, which are second only to oil as a source of foreign exchange. In Canada, every guest worker creates three jobs in transport, packing and container industries. The workers also spend two-thirds of their earnings while in Canada, benefitting local businesses and small towns.

For architects, this process of exchange doesn’t fall within the normal fields of categorization. The cultural groups that comprise these migrant workers have something to profit from, to lose, and to contribute to Canadian society. Migrant labour was formerly patterned by the forces of globalization. In this case, globalization is manifested through local food production that has visible effects on the built environment of rural communities in both countries.

Beyond the pastoral views of southern Ontario, difficult issues of economic migrants, labour relations and legal rights have emerged. These most recent manifestations of globalization challenge the physical, demographic and economic landscape of the Canadian countryside. With rural populations declining, the potential for economic, cultural and social renewal may lie outside Canada.

Phil Goodfellow studies, lives and actively promotes architecture and design in Toronto.