On 15 April 2020, 146 Mexican temporary workers landed in Vancouver, in British Columbia. These seasonal agricultural workers were welcomed with an unusual scene: an almost empty airport, face masks, social distancing measures, and a mandatory two-week quarantine in a local hotel with paid expenses, before going to work on their assigned farms. Earlier that Spring, the Canadian government declared foreign temporary workers as essential for the Canadian economy therefore allowing them to cross borders in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds more seasonal agricultural workers have arrived in Vancouver since then.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, in Canada, as in other places around the world, ‘essential’ workers have been recognised and applauded as the sector of the economy that keeps supply chains moving and operating smoothly: health workers, but also supermarket employees, small grocery shop workers, and those who provide services. However, not everyone gets the same recognition – in the highly segmented Canadian economy, those who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder have provided the invisible labour needed to maintain the supply chains – and bring food to the tables of Canadian people.
Mexican agricultural workers have long been associated with migration to North America. Thousands of these workers have been officially travelling to Canada since 1974, as part of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Apples, blueberries, and other vegetables that are staples of the Canadian diet are possible only because of the workers that cross borders every year to work in farms, earning minimum wages, from seeding season in early Spring, until the end of the harvesting season, sending revenues to their communities in Mexico. Last year, temporary workers filled more than 50,000 farming and agricultural jobs, but this year, the pandemic has made mobility much more difficult, regulated, and risky.
These workers, dubbed the ‘Petateros’ (after the working programme name in Spanish – Programa de Trabajadores Agrícolas Temporales, or PTAT), have in the past complained of unfair treatment, discrimination, and the inflexibility of the contracts that tie them to specific farms for the duration of their stay in Canada. Once they arrive in Canada, they are bound to a contract with their employers, who provide basic housing (often in crowded conditions), but depending on the province, no other perks - such as free meals. In B.C., employers are not required to provide workers with food and basic groceries. Workers have to pay for their own plane tickets, too.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary workers have provided essential labour to the agricultural sector. Local labour is not always as available, or it is not as cost-effective as temporary migrant work. With the current state of things, some questions have been raised: would Canadian citizens be willing to commit to the hard work of farming? Would unemployed people be willing and able to commit to harvesting the food needed to arrive at Canadian tables? A question to ponder for many of the unemployed who have filed for temporary COVID-19 benefits (CERB). Even students, who will be largely unemployed this summer due to the crumbling COVID-19 economy, are not being considered a realistic choice, as academic instruction would reopen in September, well before the end of the harvesting season. Moreover, it is unlikely that students would be motivated to take on farming or agricultural jobs anyway since the government has contemplated federal aid for students in compensation for the projected loss of summer jobs.
Because of the travel restrictions that have followed the COVID-19 pandemic, some Canadian farms have been unable to get the much-needed workers in time for the season – from seeding to harvest. Local labour forces are often not skilled enough or willing to work under hard conditions, nor can be trained in a timely way. In the province of Quebec, in contrast, temporary workers have been recognised as an efficient and skilled workforce. Left on their own, some farmers worry for the crops as the summer goes by. Social media advertisements looking for help picking fruit are not infrequent.
British Columbia, a province whose agricultural sector relies heavily on specific farming products, has been lucky to allow the timely entry of the seasonal workers – the ‘Petateros’ this year. In the past, Mexican workers have accounted for 51% of the temporary workers (followed by Guatemalan and Jamaican). The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – currently undergoing an overhaul – has given some advantages both to the sending and receiving governments. Yet, the reality is that Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) gives workers little room to move once in Canada. Mostly men, preferably married and with economic dependents, temporary workers are ineligible to apply for permanent residence in the country. They are welcome to work, but on the condition that they do not overstay. Workers have noted that they are bound to a second-level labour market, paying taxes and contributing to a system from which they do not benefit, and where they cannot aspire to belong. Conditions are not different in the pandemic.
After the entry of the temporary workers, and although preventive measures were taken to combat the spread of the virus (such as the two-week quarantine), cases of COVID-19 have already been identified in farms in British Columbia and other parts of Canada. In Kelowna, British Columbia, a region known for its seasonal crops of 15,000 acres of cherries, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, one farm had 14 cases of COVID-19 among its workers (the outbreak was later confirmed by media to have peaked at 23 cases).
This happened in spite of the social distancing measures that farms are being required to take against the risk of the virus – provide clean, sanitized housing, handwashing stations, and allowing workers to quarantine upon arrival. Efforts were made, by the local community and non-profit organisations, to feed the sick workers while quarantined, all while the employing farms in B.C. are still not legally required to provide food for their temporary workers, nor pay for it. In other parts of the country, other outbreaks of COVID-19 in farms have happened, too, reaching the hundreds of cases. Officially, media reported the death of a third Mexican worker this past June.
The situation has sparked a call for protective measures for the vulnerable temporary workers: better housing conditions, a safer working environment, and the possibility to further advocate for workers’ rights. Although temporary workers are not legally prohibited to unionise, they cannot make any changes to their programmes and contracts, such as change employers if their conditions are deemed unsafe or unsatisfactory. Furthermore, temporary agricultural workers are often discouraged to join labour unions, an issue that has previously been an object of contention involving several actors at national and international levels. Yet, there is hope that the essential status of these workers might start being recognized – the Mexican Ambassador in Ottawa earlier declared that the supply of temporary workers might be cut off, if no protective measures were taken. Other worker organisations have spoken for further protections against the virus, calling for attention to the precarious situation of the thousands of workers in the farms.
Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges to the mobilisation of workers across boundaries. It also makes visible the challenges and the patterns of inequality and vulnerability of the Canadian labour market. The time is ripe for a deeper discussion about these issues.
Dr. Veronica Alfaro is a lecturer of Sociology of Work at Columbia College, in Vancouver, British Columbia. An immigrant herself, she is interested in the intersection of work, ethnicity, and the diverse experiences of people who move across borders.