How's a Squashed Dreams Ravioli with a side of Pesti-cide Fruit Salad and a strong Rigged System Pale Ale sound?

Those are some of the grimly-named dishes restaurant goers can learn about as they dine out across bars and restaurants in Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara and Windsor. It's part of a new campaign by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change [MWAC] hoping to educate people about the exploitation migrant agricultural workers in Canada endure on a systematic basis.

"Migrant workers in Canada’s fruit industry are exposed to dangerous pesticides without the proper protective gear. In fact, 74 per cent of Mexican workers reported being given no workplace health and safety information at all," reads one entry.

"Despite working in Canada for years, thousands of migrant workers who grow wheat and other crops cannot get permanent resident status and the rights that come with it, often because many farm owners actively stall or sabotage the process," according to another.

Every year, around 50,000 to 60,000 foreign agricultural workers come to work in Canada from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. Between January 2020 and June 2021, nine migrant workers died in Ontario, a study in the International Journal for Equity in Health found.

By scanning a QR code that opens up a Secret Menu, people are presented displays of "the hidden human cost behind each entrée, main course, dessert and drink item," according to a press release. It comes at a time when food prices — as well as CEO salaries and profits — skyrocket alongside inflation. 

The entries, which are candid descriptions of the exploitation workers face, are not meant to guilt-trip people into changing their personal food habits, says Syed Hussan, executive director of MWAC. Rather, they're meant to educate them about the political relationship between their food, Canada's immigration laws and the current cost-of-living crisis.

The Secret Menu also allows people to sign a petition urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to grant "permanent resident status immediately to all migrants."

Photo courtesy of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

"We want the public to see the injustice and to act on it," said Hussan. 

"The menu outlines how farmworkers are organizing — how the farm workers are the ones fighting back — and the invitation is that you too, as someone who eats or drinks or looks at flowers in this province, have a stake in the outcome."

Designed to keep workers down

The campaign focuses on migrant agricultural workers because, while essential, they're often some of the worst paid, most exploited, and most invisible, Hussan said. 

For instance, on January 30, the federal government announced that family members of some temporary foreign workers will be eligible for work permits. However, it excludes all workers under the low-wage stream of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program [SAWP] and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program [TFWP]. 

The Agri-Food Pilot also excludes seasonal agricultural workers, but does allow temporary foreign workers in multi-year contracts, which make up about 40 per cent of agricultural workers. However, to do so, they need to receive a letter from the employer. 

Hussan says this incentivizes employers to force workers to "compete among themselves" for the promise of a letter that often never comes.

Other workers have been blocked from going into cities to take an English test as part of their PR requirements. Hussan says many employers go as far as to install surveillance cameras to make sure no one leaves.

"Through controlling access to English language tests, to educational accreditation, by controlling the job offer letter for access to permanent residency — employers use all of it to keep workers down," he said.

At 'disproportionate risk' 

The pandemic exacerbated this. While the federal government introduced immigration policies that were ostensibly to ease the entrance of temporary foreign workers, studies have found that it was employers who reaped rewards and workers who suffered consequences, including deaths.

For instance, a HillNotes report from the Library of Parliament found that the measures introduced were largely to "increase flexibility and reduce the administrative burden on employers." 

As a result, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada found that migrant workers faced a "disproportionate risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to factors such as crowded on-site housing and fear of reprisals if they report symptoms."

It is typical for migrant farmworkers to live in cramped spaces, sometimes up to 30 people in small bunks like this one sharing one or two toilets. Photo courtesy of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

The report also found that "several outbreaks have been reported at workplaces employing TFWs, including meat processing plants and farms. These have contributed to the untimely deaths of several workers."

Hussan believes that's due in no small part to the level of influence the agri-food lobby has in Canada, which he says is "almost as powerful as the oil lobby."

With Canada being the fifth largest agri-food exporter in the world, he added, there is a lot of dollars at stake to lose if migrant workers and allies demand their rights – hence the campaign. 

"What we're showing from this project is that migrant farmworkers are fighting back, and we are calling on everybody else to join in this fight, because the only thing we have in our fight against the billionaires is our numbers."

Record profits and stolen wealth

In December, the Toronto Star reported that Canada’s big three supermarket chains — Loblaws, Empire (Sobeys) and Metro — increased their profits on the back of record high grocery prices steadily through the pandemic. 

A month later, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [CCPA] published a report showing that the 100 highest paid Canadian CEOs made 243 times, or an average top pay of $14.3 million, more than the average worker. 

"All the big banks. The CEOs are on there. The place where you buy your groceries is on there. The place where you buy your gas, the mining companies — they’re all on there,” CCPA economist and the report's author, David Macdonald, told Press Progress

Yet, last Tuesday, Loblaws announced it was ending the price freeze on its No Name brand, complaining that its profits had diminished. It then apparently spent the rest of the day scouring social media for negative reaction.

In reply to someone's comment criticizing the move, @Loblawco bemoaned that while they "may be the face of food inflation" they "are not the cause."

According to the multi-billion dollar company, "food prices are higher in our stores because the manufacturers who make the products are charging more for them," leading them to only make $4 profit on every $100 grocery bag.

That's the tone-deaf narrative migrant workers themselves, through the Secret Menu campaign, are challenging via a good, healthy dose of reality in every bite.

"It is always the workers who are the manufacturer — that's what we want to really focus on," Hussan said. 

"The hands that plant the food, that harvest it, that package it, that wash it and dry it, then send it our way and feed us – those hands are the ones from whom wealth is being stolen."

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Feb 3, 2023
Local News
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