Insecurity via Exclusion: Migrant Farm Workers in the Age of COVID-19

The three Mexican migrant farm workers who died in Canada from COVID-19 in 2020: Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, and Juan López Chaparro.

This post by Edward Dunsworth is part of the “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19” series. Read the rest of the series here. The text is based on a talk given at Carleton University as part of the Shannon Lecture series, in September 2020. A video of that talk can be found here.

Like so many marginalized people the world over, migrant farm workers in Canada have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. To date, over 2,500 migrant farm workers have contracted the virus across the country. In Ontario, migrant farm workers are ten times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than the rest of the population.

Last year, three migrant workers, all from Mexico, died from COVID-19. In 2021, migrant worker deaths have surged even further. In May, Mexican worker Fausto Ramirez Plazas became the fourth known participant in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) to succumb to COVID-19, after he contracted the illness during his two-week post-arrival quarantine. But a staggering eight more SAWP workers have died already this year, at least five of them also during their quarantines. The deceased workers hail from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent, and Mexico. Causes of death are not known. To give some perspective on the gravity of the situation, between 1994 and 2011, 39 SAWP workers died while in Canada – just over two per year. Nine have already died in 2021, and it’s not even July.

Tragic as these deaths and illnesses are, the situation came as little surprise to farm workers and their allies, who have been raising the alarm for decades about the appalling living and working conditions, rampant workplace abuse, and general rightlessness that characterize the condition of temporary foreign workers in Canadian agriculture.

As advocates and scholars warned the federal government from the earliest days of the pandemic (to, essentially, no avail), migrant workers’ cramped living quarters, coupled with a culture of fear imposed by draconian program structures, provide perfect conditions for the spread of contagious disease. And spread it did.

A typical bunkhouse, near Chatham, Ontario, 2017. Author’s photo.

All of this has happened in a multi-billion dollar sector whose profits have soared in recent decades, a reality that contrasts sharply with highly effective sky-is-falling narratives about struggling “family farmers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to many Canadians what has long been known to farm workers, advocates, and knowledgeable observers: that the security of Canada’s food system rests atop the profound insecurity of temporary foreign workers.

In many ways, the insecurity of migrant farm workers derives from their exclusion: exclusion from the rights of labour mobility and collective bargaining; from the employment law protections that apply to workers in other sectors; and, critically, from access to permanent residency. The end result is that, in a sense, migrant farm workers are excluded from security: social, economic, and in many cases even physical security, given the supreme risks of disease, injury, and death that come with the job.

This insecurity, so starkly revealed under the pressures of the pandemic, forms part of a larger story of exclusion (and its inverse, inclusion) in the historical shaping of Canada’s agricultural workforce – a story that we can learn a lot about from the case of southwestern Ontario’s tobacco sector, the subject of my book-in-progress.

Ontario’s tobacco sector, which for decades was a highly attractive destination for temporary jobseekers and prospective farmers, was also deeply marked by its exclusion of certain groups of workers. By examining this particular sector, we can gain a better understanding of what inclusion in the tobacco sector meant for working people, and therefore of the long-term consequences – and costs – of exclusion.


Developing rapidly in the 1920s and 1930s to help meet the surging demand for cigarettes in Canada and around the world, Ontario’s tobacco belt, located in Norfolk County and the surrounding areas, quickly became one of the most profitable sectors in Canadian agriculture. With heavy labour requirements, high wages, and opportunities for upward social mobility, the tobacco belt attracted thousands of workers each harvest – upwards of 30,000 per year by the 1940s.

Ontario’s tobacco belt. Map created by author using Creative Commons images.

Tobacco’s workforce was a diverse lot, including workers from local farming areas, nearby Indigenous communities, and jobseekers from Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, and seemingly every part of Canada. Many of those who came to the tobacco belt for harvest work – and, in many cases, to stay – were immigrants from sundry parts of Europe, for whom the golden leaf offered a long-sought-after opportunity to become smallholding farm proprietors. And indeed, a remarkable number of working families were able to progress from wage labourers to sharecroppers to farm owners, a trajectory that had become nearly unattainable in most other agricultural contexts in Canada.

Women from Saugeen First Nation work in a tobacco greenhouse, 1963; a migrant family sits in a park in Delhi, Ontario, in search of tobacco harvest work, 1939. Archives and Special Collections, Western University.

Tobacco’s diverse workforce also included three temporary foreign worker programs, the two largest of which I will focus on in this piece: an annual movement of tobacco workers from the southern United States to southwestern Ontario (1920s-60s), and the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), founded in 1966 and still in operation today, which brings upwards of 40,000 seasonal farm workers to Canada each year from Mexico and the Caribbean – the very workers now getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Both of these schemes – in different ways – were marked by racist exclusion. Practices of inclusion and exclusion did not merely determine who could work temporary farm jobs in Canada or the character of their experiences while doing so. They also drew lines between who could – and could not – profit from a burgeoning commodity; who could – and could not – leverage their wage labour into a more sustainable living on the land; and thus who could – and could not – build intergenerational wealth.


The U.S.-Ontario scheme started out as organic movement before coming under bilateral state control in the 1940s as a result of wartime cooperation. From the 1930s to 1960s, it brought between one and four thousand workers north each year from tobacco producing states such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. It had one other key characteristic, one that was rarely mentioned on record: until 1966, it was whites-only.[1]

The movement’s racist exclusion originated in the Jim Crow practices of the U.S. South and was bolstered by the de facto colour bar in place at the Canadian border. The barring of African American participants occurred in spite of the fact that Blacks in the sending regions were deeply involved in all stages of tobacco production and represented sizeable proportions of the population.

The whites-only limitation finally ended in 1966, not due to the ongoing liberalization of immigration policies in Canada in that period, but instead at the behest of U.S. officials who were concerned about contravening new civil rights legislation that, among other things, banned discrimination by government agencies and in employment.

The way Canadian and American officials chose to integrate the program, however, also discriminated against African Americans. Under the new structure, quotas were issued for the percentage of each sending state’s workers who were to be Black. In Virginia, 5 per cent of workers were to be Black; 10 per cent in North Carolina; 33.3% in South Carolina and Florida; and 10% in Georgia. It is not known how these percentages were arrived at, but in all states but Florida, they were vastly lower than African American populations in the sending regions.

Farm owner B.C. Corbett, wife, and son stripping and grading tobacco in a strip house, Orange County, North Carolina, September 1939. Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress

And when Black workers actually arrived in Ontario for the first time in 1966, at least 26 were turned away from their pre-arranged workplaces by racist employers, a story that received newspaper coverage on both sides of the border.

Simcoe Reformer, 12 August 1966; Poughkeepsie (New York) Journal, 13 August 1966; Ottawa Journal, 13 August 1966.


The second major guestworker program that Ontario tobacco growers utilized, the SAWP, began in 1966, the exact same year as the integration of the U.S.-Ontario movement. Like the U.S.-Ontario program, the SAWP, too, has been marked by exclusion – and qualified patterns of inclusion.

Exclusion first and foremost marks the history of the SAWP in terms of when it actually was implemented. By the time it was finally founded in 1966, Caribbean governments – both colonial and later independent – had been lobbying for such a program for nearly 20 years, with the eager support of Canadian farmers. Canadian government officials essentially dragged their feet for 20 years before finally giving in. As Vic Satzewich has documented, a central – perhaps the central – reason why they did so was racism.

Specifically, Canadian officials worried about Black West Indian workers remaining in the country permanently. They reasoned that Caribbean migrants were “unassimilable” and “climatically unsuitable” – that classic Canadian bit of justification for racist exclusion. They also fretted about mixing Black West Indian men with white Canadian women in rural workplaces.

Caribbean tobacco workers in southwestern Ontario, 1981. Photos: Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge.

Racist exclusion also played a key role in the decisions to ensure that the program remained a temporary one and did not provide an avenue for the permanent settlement of Black working-class men in Canada.

For decades, then, Black West Indians and African Americans were barred from participating in Ontario’s tobacco sector. Over those same decades, thousands of migrants from Europe and the United States (provided they were white) chose the Ontario tobacco belt as their home and many working families were able to progress from wage labour to farm ownership. By the time African Americans were finally, belatedly, included in the U.S.-Ontario movement, the possibilities of such social mobility had all but disappeared (due to various economic developments), meaning that they had already missed out on the tobacco sector’s richest rewards. Of course, given the racist reception of the first group of Black workers in 1966, it does not seem likely that remaining in Canada would have even been a very good option.

It was certainly not an option for the Black West Indian workers who also began working in Ontario tobacco in the mid-1960s. For them, the changing economics of tobacco farming were a moot point – even if tobacco had remained a beacon of rural social mobility, they still would have had no right to take up permanent residence and take advantage of it.

The African Americans and West Indians who eventually came to work in Ontario tobacco – and those who would have come in earlier decades – shared much in common with the tobacco belt’s other newcomers. Hailing largely from struggling rural zones, many hoped that through migration they could secure a better living on the land. But these regimes of racist exclusion precluded them from doing so – in Canada at least – and thus cost them the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth, an opportunity that was wide open to Europeans, white Americans, and Canadians in the tobacco belt.

So that’s what exclusion cost these workers. But I would like to suggest that exclusion has also cost us, as a society.


When COVID-19 hit in March and April of 2020, and hyper-restrictive border controls were thrown up seemingly overnight, the vulnerabilities of Canada’s migrant-worker-dependent food system became abundantly clear. The federal government initially decided that migrant farm workers would not be permitted entry to Canada, before very quickly relenting under enormous pressure from growers. Pandemic regulations and bureaucratic challenges in both sending countries and Canada produced significant delays in workers’ travel and resulted in much smaller numbers of workers coming, and therefore in the loss of thousands upon thousands of acres of crops.

Meanwhile, year after year we are seeing comprehension-defying heat waves, forest fires, and other “natural” disasters rage across the world. Again and again, we see farm workers on the front lines, rushing to harvest crops before they are swallowed up by fast-approaching flames, waves, or winds. I would say it was heroic if the situation wasn’t so utterly criminal.

Farm workers in Oregon harvest crops by the light of their cell phones, as forest fires rage nearby, September 2020. @astuesse, Twitter.

In these days of pandemic and escalating climate emergency, can there be any doubt as to the essentiality of farm workers?

But instead of being positioned to confront these crises and the extreme stresses they place on the food system with a secure, well-paid labour force – one that enjoys the full rights of citizenship and shares in the benefits of the sector – we have an extremely vulnerable system with even more vulnerable workers.

This is the legacy of many decades of often-racist exclusion and highly qualified inclusion.

Now well into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and progressing ever deeper into the climate emergency, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what type of food system, with what calibration of inclusion and exclusion, do we desire for our future?

Edward Dunsworth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University and a member of Active History’s editorial collective.


[1] I tell this story in full in my article, “Race, Exclusion, and Archival Silences in the Seasonal Migration of Tobacco Workers from the Southern United States to Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review 99, no. 4 (2018): 563-93. Please see that article for citations for the evidence presented here.

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