Every year, tens of thousands of men and women from countries like Mexico and Jamaica work as temporary foreign workers in Canadian agriculture. Working far away from their families for prolonged periods in a difficult and demanding industry, in a country in which they are considered guests but never citizens, these workers are especially vulnerable. For over a decade, I have conducted various research projects investigating the types of health and human rights issues that migrant workers experience, the barriers that they face to accessing care and supports, and the long-term consequences of working in Canada.
In two recent publications, I draw on this body of work to reflect on how migrant workers relate more broadly into issues of food security. When I was asked to contribute a chapter for a volume on sustainable, healthy food systems in Canada, I took the opportunity to consider how we might view migrant workers as an integral part of our local food system. Often the rights of migrant workers are viewed as necessarily oppositional to the interests of their employers, Canadian farmers.
In the chapter entitled “Strengthening the Backbone: Local food, Foreign Labour and Social Justice”, I put forward the argument that advancing migrant workers’ rights and health protections need not come at the cost of employers’ interests, and I laid out some concrete steps that more positive relationships between workers and their advocates and employers could be formed. This argument may be surprising for some of readers, since most of the scholarship in this area, including my own, has focused solely or primarily on advancing the rights of workers. In thinking through the food system as a whole, however, clearly both workers’ and farmers’ needs must be considered, since without a viable local agricultural economy, migrant workers could lose their livelihoods.
In a second related article, Food Security at Whose Expense? A Critique of the Canadian Temporary Farm Labour Migration Regime and Proposals for Change, I join colleagues Anelyse Weiler and Donald Cole to explore more critically the relationships between food insecurity and labour migration, arguing that migrant workers’ own food insecurity is only partially and temporarily relieved by their participation in temporary agricultural migration schemes.
Food is both a basic human need a basic human right. Ensuring access to healthy, sustainable food should be a concern of every person, but unfortunately, access to such food in heavily skewed in favour of people who have greater power or resources. That is one of the reasons migrant workers come to Canada in the first place; in a highly inequitable world, they cannot provide for their families by farming at home. There are deep interrelationships between the various aspects of a food system – if production systems are not healthy and sustainable, consumption patterns cannot be either. Supporting farmers everywhere, whether in Mexico or in Canada, is imperative to ensuring that all of us can access just and nourishing food systems.
I truly hope that these publications will inspire a more positive and open dialogue between all stakeholders. My current research is focusing on new and exciting pilot health care initiatives aiming to meet the unique needs of migrant workers, with the aim that such measures can be offered more widely to better protect migrant workers’ health.
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