The human cost of Canada’s cheap food

OPINION: The temporary-foreign-worker program is built on contradictions and hypocrisy — and, eventually, it’s going to collapse on us
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 10, 2021
Ontario’s farm sector relies heavily on temporary foreign workers. (JonathanNicholls/CP)

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A confession: I totally lost track of what was going on early in this week’s episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date and had to rewind a bit because of some shots (circa summer 2020) of the lovely southwest Ontario countryside, briefly visible from the windows of cars being driven by MPP Taras Natyshak and MP Dave Epp. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to pay attention to what they were saying, but it’s currently a pretty grim winter in Toronto, and the sight of green, sunlit farmers’ fields in a part of the province I badly miss driving around was incredibly distracting and made me feel the current restrictions on our movement even more keenly.

So if you’re not feeling great right now in early 2021 (and who is?), I’ll simply say that it’s okay for what’s going on right now to hit you hard — and by surprise.

Moving on.

There’s something about Canada’s temporary-foreign-worker program that always reminds me of François de La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, usually translated as “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Nobody actually believes — or, at least, is willing to make the argument on the record — that it’s objectively good and right that Ontario’s farm sector relies so heavily on a class of worker that’s denied, as a matter of law, basic rights that we extend to Canadians. We have a system that has evolved for particular historical reasons and that we maintain in large part because nobody can see an easy way out, and nobody wants to do something hard.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Farm operators certainly have some truth on their side when they say that TFWs are necessary to the farm sector as we know it today, but that’s also question-begging: farmers have made large investments in their operations with the expectation that the TFW program will continue and then lobbied heavily for it to be preserved.

It’s also crystal clear to everyone that we’re only with the TFW program okay so long as it’s fenced off from the rest of the country’s economy. Not that long ago — less than a decade — Canadian firms were caught out using TFWs for positions as varied as restaurant servers and bank tellers, at a time when Canadian unemployment was above 7 per cent. (Just prior to the pandemic, it was 5.6 per cent.) The result was that the Stephen Harper government substantially tightened restrictions on TFWs. Except, of course, the thrust of the rules was to protect jobs for Canadians and not to protect migrant workers. So in the two years from 2013 to 2015, the total number of TFWs shrank, but farm workers increased both in absolute terms and as a share of all TFWs.

If we were honest with ourselves, we’d just admit that exploiting migrant workers this way as a permanent feature of the Canadian economy is indefensible and then wind down the program. But we choose to lie to ourselves, because that’s the tribute vice pays to virtue.

What we want is cheap food (and a farm sector that’s competitive with the Americans, who are no more squeamish about exploiting migrants than we are), so we’ve constructed a system that relies on large flows of workers from outside our borders. Crucially, though — and unlike the historic pattern for Canadian migration — there’s no expectation that these people will ever become permanent residents or citizens, or will ever be afforded the rights that normal workers are.

(Our love of cheap food has one big caveat in the dairy and poultry sectors. There, government policy increases food prices via supply management, and no federal or provincial political party with actual seats in Parliament or Queen’s Park dares propose dismantling it. Have we mentioned that none of this makes any sense or can be made to make sense?)

All of this was messy and confused and required both tortured logic and ethics to keep it going in normal years, but the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore. Or at least, it should have after the COVID-19 body count started to climb in farm-country bunkhouses. But another harvest season is coming, and the planes will be landing at Toronto Pearson Airport any day now with more workers willing to brave conditions in Canada — one of the world’s mediocre performers at COVID-19 control — because it still beats whatever’s available back home.

I tend to believe that things that can’t go on forever, don’t. Eventually, the ramshackle edifice of contradictions and hypocrisy that Canada has relied on to access cheap farm labour will collapse on us. Eventually, either the abuses will become too much to ignore or (a more optimistic and longer-term possibility) conditions in other parts of the world will improve enough that the army of desperates beyond our shores will slow to a trickle. And then we’ll have to finally answer the question we’ve put enormous amounts of time and energy into ignoring: What do we do now?

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