Temporary Foreign Workers – The Backbone of Our Food System

Written by UBC Dietetic students (Natalie Cryderman and Mio Lainchbury) in collaboration with Abra Brynne from the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council.

More and more people want to know where their food comes from. We may even already have a picture in our mind of the farmers that grow our food. So it might surprise you to know that the people doing the labour of growing our food aren’t just farm owners, but also farmers from outside of Canada. These people are part of a Federal Government program known as SAWP, which began in 1966 to meet the labour demands for agriculture work in Ontario. SAWP stands for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Over the years, SAWP has expanded to include all ten Canadian provinces. The program allows farm employers to hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean countries, commonly referred to as temporary foreign workers (TFW). These people can be hired for up to 8 months a year. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important these workers are for Canada’s food system—in March, the federal government deemed farm workers essential and allowed them to fly here from other countries during the height of the pandemic, despite travel bans. COVID-19 has also exposed many of the challenges that these workers face while they are in Canada. For example, TFWs tend to live in overcrowded housing, and permanent residency is not an option, despite these workers being deemed ‘essential.’ In addition, these workers face challenges maintaining physical distance at work and in their housing, which may increase the risk of getting COVID-19.

Disclaimer: In this article, we use the term temporary foreign workers. We would like to acknowledge that these are individual people who are not temporary and play a significant role in our food system. This term is used in the article in reference to the limited status afforded to these individuals under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). 

Why does it matter to us?

Perspective of year 5 dietetic students:

As students doing our 4-week population and public health practicum, we had no idea about many details of the current food system. We have taken a few courses in school about food sovereignty, food security and food literacy, but most of what we’ve learned was about how to help a client or patient deal with chronic diseases through nutrition. Being aware of how our food system works, including government programs such as SAWP,  helps us as dietitians to better understand what keeps people from accessing healthy and culturally-appropriate food. We can use this knowledge and our skills to help improve the food environment for everyone. For example, we now understand the role a dietitian could have in supporting and improving temporary foreign workers’ well-being through policy change, advocating for services or encouraging community health centres to provide support like cooking classes. To us, it only makes sense that as dietitians, we should be both supporting healthy eating for the general population, and calling for adequate rights and freedom for the TFWs who grow our food. 

We have learned about the injustices that TFWs face while in Canada. This includes the risk of food insecurity and the ability for them to access healthy and culturally-appropriate food. It is alarming to think that the people that help grow our food have trouble accessing food themselves. TFWs often face financial barriers before coming to Canada, placing them at risk for food insecurity before they even arrive. Once in Canada, they may lack kitchen equipment and storage space to store and make food safely, which impacts their ability to eat healthy. It is common to share one fridge and one stove between workers, which limits the types of foods that TFW can purchase. In one instance, a worker became ill and could not work due to consuming cooked meat that he had stored in a cupboard, since there was not enough fridge space. Workers often rely on buying and eating processed foods to avoid getting sick. As one researcher learned during an interview with a TFW: “The guys have to be so organized around their cooking. They get off late from work and only have one stove, so they can’t all use it, so some of them have to cook the night before to make sure they can eat.” (Weiler, 2017) Their working and living conditions can make it difficult for them to eat healthy food, and even to access healthcare, increasing their risk for long-term health problems. In addition, most TFWs do not live close to public transportation due to living in more rural areas, and are largely reliant on their employers for vehicle access. This can be another barrier to accessing food. One worker states, “All of us lose weight… because we work a lot and we don’t eat what we should eat.” (Weiler, 2017)

Perspective of Abra Brynne, Executive Director of the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council:

Systemic racism is found everywhere and lives throughout our food systems. Most Canadians are completely unaware of the vital role that TFWs play on farms and communities across Canada. This is partly a factor of how far most Canadians are removed from the sources of their food, but it is also a result of the isolation that is enforced on the workers, even without the pandemic. This physical isolation leads to social isolation from those who live in nearby communities. One result of this isolation of workers is the myths and fears that all too often are assigned to people from elsewhere. For example, a resident in Lavington expressed fear for his family’s safety when housing for TFWs was being proposed in his neighbourhood. Rather than curiosity, gratitude and compassion, too often TFWs are resented for wanting equal and fair treatment. For example, wanting to access Canadian healthcare services when they are ill or injured, or seeking a pathway to citizenship in a country in which they may spend more time than at home with their own families. 

TFWs come to Canada from other countries to do hard physical labour for which Canadian workers cannot be found. From a justice lens, it is not okay to find it acceptable to deny TFWs access to the privileges and rights that we take for granted. I believe that by learning more about the experience of TFWs as a Food Policy Council, we can develop and promote policies that can help to ensure that TFWs are treated well and fairly in exchange for their hard work.

Why should it matter to you?

In Canada in 2019, there were 46,719 TFWs, 8,214 of whom were in B.C. From these numbers, it is clear that TFWs contribute a significant amount of work to ensure the stability of the Canadian food supply. We rely on these workers to put food on our plates. As the backbone of Canada’s agricultural sector, TFWs deserve the same respect and rights that Canadians take for granted every day. 

TFWs are coming to Canada to make a living, and to provide for their families—obligations that many of us share. Despite often poor working and housing conditions, these workers continue to come to our country, leaving their families and loved ones behind to work and provide a better quality of life for their families.

My children don’t really know me. When I came for the first time, I thought it would be for one or two seasons. But now I’ve come for 6, and things just keep getting worse in Mexico. And my children have grown up without their father. But hey, what option did I have? I could have stayed with them without being able to provide what they needed, or I leave them and I can send them to a better school, buy them better clothes, give them a better life, no?” (Cohen, 2019)

Many of the issues TFWs face are becoming more public, but remain outside of mainstream news. People of colour have historically faced many barriers to gaining power in Canada. Policy decision makers often leave out people of colour, and many face barriers such as lower incomes that make changing the system difficult. TFWs face even more barriers, as the program only allows employment on a single farm, leaving TFWs unable to seek work on another farm if conditions are poor. This makes speaking out a greater risk for TFWs. They need others, such as you, to amplify their voice. 

Now What?

If we, as students learning and working in the field of nutrition and food, were previously unaware of the social justice issues that TFWs face in our own backyard, then we imagine that the public may not know this information either. We plan to continue to educate ourselves and inform others on this topic as opportunities arise.

Something else to consider is that TFWs are a part of our community. We should make sure that our community supports everyone, not just our families and ourselves. We are stronger together.

How can you help? Learn more. Talk about this with your friends and family. Ask one of the organizations below how you can become involved. Talk to your local government, your MLA or your MP.

We have found helpful articles and webinars on the following websites. We encourage you to have a look as well! 

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