Vegetables and Viruses: How COVID-19 is Exposing the Information Barrier Within the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

By Courtney Jane Clause

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada and Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA), released their annual report amid the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. UFCW and AWA support a spectrum of workers across different labour programs, industries, and legal statuses in accessing their labour rights. However, their annual report points out that enrollees under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) are an important part of their advocacy efforts, given the program’s reputation for employee abuse. Lack of information about employee rights, worker contract details, and available services within Canada is a common story among SAWP enrollees, and the situation has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as good practices and healthcare information change daily.

About SAWP

Photo credit: credit Anaya Katlego

SAWP is a “needs-based” and “seasonal” labour program negotiated between Canada and twelve participating racialized countries to combat real or perceived labour shortages in the agri-food sector. The Government of Canada’s website explains that workers reside in Canada for up to eight months while cultivating, planting, harvesting, sorting, and packing produce. The program has had mixed reception since its creation in 1966. Scholars, activists, and community organizations have called attention to structural flaws and limited government support and oversight that often lead to excessive discretion and administrative burden on employers, leaving farm-owners to determine appropriate procedures, work environments, and accommodations. Stemming from this, SAWP enrollees may suffer through inadequate housing conditions, increased, untreated, and/or poorly treated health concerns, unsafe working conditions, and social isolation, among other things.

SAWP & COVID-19

“Good employers” cannot cancel out the effects of systemic issues

As highlighted in the report, SAWP’s structural issues uniquely intersect with COVID-19 concerns. Longstanding harms within the program continue to exist but, in many instances, may find “new” expression under the realities of labouring during a pandemic.

For example, past scholarship has highlighted the tendency of workers to “learn to mute signals of tiredness or symptoms of sickness in order to continue working at the pace required.”[i] Similarly, recent news articles have noted a possibility for “symptom-masking,”[ii] where workers may take explicit steps to hide COVID-19 symptoms with the intention of ensuring continued employment. As Pfenning’s Farm notes, “[our] greatest fear is that one of [our] workers will suppress symptoms because as much as [we] try to be a respectful and caring employer[s], they still have fear because of the system.”[iii] COVID-19 risks are thus potentially exacerbated by histories of arbitrary dismissal, lack of appeals systems, and related injustices.

Intersections with the “Information Barrier”

Lack of adequate information on the implications and benefits of SAWP participation is often known formally as the “information barrier.”

In the UFCW and AWA annual report, a SAWP enrollee shared: “nobody told us what COVID-19 really is . . . we deserve to be treated better . . . our families expect us to come back home.”[iv] News outlets have written similar stories, and in one a worker reports that, “neither the government nor his employer provided information on workers’ rights during the pandemic.”[v] These failures in knowledge sharing and education, by worker accounts, constrict their options and decision-making within the program as they attempt to navigate COVID-19 risks.

This lack of adequate information on the implications and benefits of SAWP participation is often known formally as the “information barrier.” While it currently impacts the ability to administer safe, healthy COVID-19 working options to SAWP enrollees, it also demonstrates and draws attention to a bigger network of information-based struggles, or sometimes, outright failures. As concluded in my thesis, educational documents on SAWP cover a narrow range of topics that do not adequately address the varied and multi-dimensional needs of a worker’s life and labour within Canada. [vi] Focusing overwhelmingly on work conditions, wages, and basic legal responsibilities, workers are left with minimal access to in-depth information on things like sexual health, mental health, local services, language/translation options, and social opportunities.

Photo Credit: Richard Bell

Access to information impacts the full and effective exercising of rights, as we’ve seen with COVID-19 education. Just as workers cannot protect themselves against a virus they have little information about, workers cannot make free and informed decisions if they are not properly equipped with knowledge about their options. They cannot travel securely if they have little access to bicycle safety education, or information on public transportation, they cannot socialize safely if there is no information on sexual health options and anti-racism supports in their communities, and so on.

As workers and those amplifying their voices continue to identify lack of information on a spectrum of interrelated harms varying from subtle to overt, it is evident that the right to timely, comprehensive, and accessible information is vitally connected to quality of life. SAWP enrollees navigate new and unknown systems within a program that requires, in many ways, their dependence on others for information about (and, in turn, access to) these services.

Good Practices, Good Employers, and Recommendations for the Future

Educational documents on SAWP cover a narrow range of topics that do not adequately address the varied and multi-dimensional needs of a worker’s life and labour within Canada.

Of course, both surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and within SAWP more broadly, stakeholders actively imagine and implement good practices with and for SAWP enrollees. Many farm-owners are improving and adapting their practices to address workers’ unique needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers (OFVG) reports that farms are updating their health education, increasing their personal protective equipment stocks, and actively checking in on workers.[vii] These “good employers” cannot cancel out the effects of systemic issues, which exist at micro- and macro-levels of the program, even as employers work to do right by their SAWP enrollees. As Pfenning’s Farm notes, “the system is set up to make it difficult to be anything but exploitive.”[viii] However, as experts in administering SAWP these employers have important and invaluable insights into what works, what doesn’t work, and what could work. As COVID-19 exacerbates and draws increased attention to things like a “lack of access to information about health care,”[ix] many will be envisioning new approaches to equitable information-exchange. These recommendations should centre the on-the-ground and lived experiences of SAWP enrollees, and of other SAWP stakeholders, as they keep in mind the unique way information travels through the unpredictable, hands-on, and largely interpersonal nature of agriculture.  

Courtney Jane Clause completed her BA in Criminology at the University of Toronto and her MA in Communication & Media Studies at Carleton University. Her interests centre on racialized labour, agriculture, knowledge-sharing practices, and, as a Haudenosaunee scholar, decolonizing research theory.

Notes

[i] Paz Ramirez, 2013, p. 32
[ii] Gerber, 2020
[iii] Gerber, 2020, para. 9
[iv] United Food and Commercial Workers Canada and Agricultural Worker Alliance, 2020, p. 22
[v] Mojtehedzadeh, 2020 April 13, para. 2
[vi] Clause, 2020
[vii] Gerber, 2020, para. 20
[viii] Gerber, 2020, para. 10
[ix] Gerber, 2020 June 15, para. 16

References

Clause, C. J. (2020). (Em)bodies and documents: examining information-sharing practices within the seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP). [Master’s Thesis, Carleton University]. Carleton University Virtual Research Environment. https://doi.org/10.22215/etd/2020-14073

Gerber, L. (2020, June 15). If Canadian consumers “knew the work, they’d value the workers.” The Record. https://www.therecord.com/news/waterloo-region/2020/06/15/if-canadian-consumers-knew-the-work-theyd-value-the-workers.html

Mojtehedzadeh, S. (2020, April 13). Canada saw the migrant farmer COVID-19 crisis coming – and its our job to fix it. Chatelaine.  https://www.chatelaine.com/living/features-living/migrant-farm-workers-covid/

Mojtehedzadeh, S. (2020, April 13). Migrant farm workers from Jamaica are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers. The Star. https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/04/13/migrant-farm-workers-fear-exposure-to-covid-19.html

Paz Ramirez, A. B. Embodying and resisting labour apartheid: Racism and Mexican farm workers in Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers program. [Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia]. ProQuest Dissertations. https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0103384

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada and Agricultural Worker Alliance. (2020). The status of migrant workers in Canada, 2020 special report: marking three decades of advocacy on behalf of Canada’s most exploited workforce. United Food and Commercial Workers Canada and Agricultural Worker Alliance. http://www.ufcw.ca/templates/ufcwcanada/images/awa/publications/UFCW-Canada-Status-of-Migrant-Workers-Report-2020.pdf