The Thanksgiving season is often seized upon by farmworkers and activists to highlight agricultural workers’ contributions to society and the precarious conditions that so often characterize their work and life. In both Canada and the United States, farm labour activists have riffed on a popular motif which recognizes farmers, modifying it to some variation of: “Got Food? Thank a Farmworker.”
In Canada, these messages have drawn attention in particular to migrant farmworkers, who in various Temporary Foreign Worker Programs (TFWPs), represent a crucial component of the country’s agricultural labour force. In the spirit of joining the Thanksgiving shout-out to farmworkers, in this post I share two finds from the archives, uncovered in the course of my research on the history of tobacco farm labour in Ontario, in which senior federal bureaucrats in the 1960s and 1970s issue some eerily prescient warnings about what TFWPs might become in the future.
First, a bit of context, while the history of migrant labour can be traced back centuries in Canada, state-managed guestworker programs have been a permanent fixture since the mid-20th century. In agriculture, the most important program has been the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), founded in 1966, which brings workers from Mexico, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries to work on Canadian farms. TFWPs – which comprise a large number of employment visa regulations and foreign labour schemes, including the SAWP – have come under fire in recent years by activists, academics, and politicians.
Migrant justice advocates have criticized the structure of programs, under which migrants in practice have far fewer rights than Canadian workers. Migrant labour scholar Adriana Paz has referred to this as a system of “labour apartheid.” In the SAWP specifically, migrant workers are barred from unionizing in Ontario (by far the biggest receiving province), have almost zero access to permanent residency, often face dangerous work conditions and subpar living arrangements, and find that their employers have almost unchecked control over their immigration status. Complaining about conditions on the job or in the bunkhouse can often result in summary deportation and exclusion from future participation in the program.
The number of migrants arriving in Canada in TFWPs grew rapidly under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, though much of the groundwork for these programs was laid during Liberal administrations. In recent years, Liberals have criticized Conservatives’ running of the programs, arguing that what started out as a small, tightly-managed mechanism for alleviating temporary labour shortages had ballooned into an uncontrollable behemoth, easily abused by employers seeking cheap labour. This was never how this was supposed to work, the Liberals and Justin Trudeau have essentially said. Any problems that have arisen are simply the result of Conservative mismanagement.
Two letters at Library and Archives Canada complicate the Liberal portrayal of TFWPs. Written respectively in 1962 and 1974, they foreshadow some of the problems that would emerge in TFWPs in later years, suggesting that these issues are not simply managerial or administrative. Rather, they are structural, something that has been apparent to observers – including those within government – since before the programs even began. Continue reading