6. 30. 2023
Migrant Farm Workers’ Struggles, Across Borders
Annie Faye Cheng
The host guides your party to your table. You sit down, shedding layers and bags. Take out your phone to scan the unassuming QR code on the table – a height-of-COVID safety practice that endures today in many restaurants. Instead of taking you to the establishment’s menu, the link takes you to The Secret Menu, a website by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) that opens with “YOUR FOOD COMES WITH A HIDDEN COST.” A collaboration between the Canada-based labour organization MWAC and the creative agency Sid Lee, the website details risks faced by migrant workers.
The menu items include “Out-Of-This-Country Mushroom Pizza,” which describes how the majority of Canadian mushroom pickers are migrant workers threatened with deportation while working in the dark, narrow working conditions of mushroom production. Across multiple “menu” options, the website shares the realities of harsh labour conditions and socioeconomic precarity. Throughout the website are quotes and personal stories from farm workers themselves, identified by their first name only. The site’s calls to action are straightforward: diners are directed to tweet their concerns at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and to sign a petition demanding permanent resident status and full legal worker protections for all migrants in the country.
The Secret Menu is just one way that farm worker labour organizers are adapting to oppressive political environments: in this case, targeting consumers, the general public. Undocumented workers are often excluded from legal protections, and labour laws are unevenly enforced where they do exist, which creates a need for such creative solutions. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), based in Florida, offers a similarly unconventional model for change.
Workers left out of unions and fighting on their own terms
In part because members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers often don’t have formal employment contracts, CIW doesn’t employ a traditional union approach rooted in collective bargaining and negotiation. Instead, its members engage in a combination of consumer boycotts and worker-driven activism, inspired by traditions of agrarian struggle in Mexico. In some cases, they bring their experience of collective action in Latin America to the United States, building on their knowledge of peasant struggles and incorporating liberation theology. In addition to building a team of worker-leaders, they bring in new members by engaging with students through their Student Farmworker Alliance branch.
The CIW leverages a community-oriented organizing model, establishing partnerships with local faith groups, consumer movement leaders such as Just Harvest USA, and student activists – who managed to get Taco Bell and McDonald’s banned from college campuses until they signed onto the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct. The coalition makes use of son jarocho music, protest puppets, and a local radio station to unite workers of different cultures. By foregrounding joy and optimism, it establishes a buoyant tone of popular struggle for better conditions. It pursues what Brazilian radical educator Paulo Freire called “popular education,” whereby participants engage in a reciprocal learning model that works towards mutuality in how knowledge is shared. In these ways, CIW creates welcoming, inclusive opportunities to participate in its work.
The CIW’s pioneering Fair Food Program has been lauded by activists around the world for its ingenuity. By pledging themselves to the legally backed Fair Food Code of Conduct agreement, companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle commit to pay one cent more per pound of tomatoes, and to work exclusively with growers that abide by certain labour standards. The Fair Food Program has resulted in more than a thousand worker-to-worker education sessions, more than nine thousand audit findings addressed, and nearly USD $39 million in premiums paid to date by the buying companies. Worker wage bonuses are drawn from this pool, added to workers’ paychecks as a separate line item. Restaurants, cooperatives, and small buyers such as farmers’ markets are all eligible to commit to the pledge.
What CIW’s work expresses so well is the power of making workers’ struggles more visible and organizing beyond formal legal mechanisms. A nonprofit, the CIW is based in a union-antagonistic state where lawmakers are unlikely to enforce worker-friendly laws, and even less likely to change worker-hostile laws. Only 4.5% of Florida workers were members of unions in 2022, compared to 10.1% of Americans. In a context where farm workers, in Florida and across the US, struggle to win decent compensation and basic safety provisions within a conventional legal framework, the CIW’s unconventional tactics offer a promising alternative.
Shared grievances and shared struggles across borders
American and Canadian authorities have designed distinct but related immigration structures that deny legal recourse and economic security to most migrant workers. For example, the ability of a worker to continue to hold a H-2A non-immigrant visa in the United States is based on job performance: the worker’s access to legal residence in the country hinges on the employer’s assessment of whether the worker is meeting their standards. In Canada, the majority of migrant farm workers arrive through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, particularly its Agricultural stream and Seasonal Agricultural Workers stream (a program, introduced in 1966, that requires hired workers to be from Mexico or participating Caribbean countries). Neither country’s standard visa programs provide workers with a reliable path to citizenship or permanent residence, which defangs migrant farm workers’ ability to unionize or use the law to resist. Agriculture workers continue to be the least unionized industry group in Canada, with fewer than 3% percent belonging to a union. A 2011 Supreme Court of Canada decision, moreover, held that farm workers have no legal right to form a union – capitulating to farmers’ claims that giving farm workers the right to strike would prove too disruptive to the time-sensitive processes of agricultural food production.
In November 2022, the Canadian government announced a new pilot immigration program that would grant a more secure path to permanent residence for migrant workers. The Agri-Food Immigration Pilot applies to “experienced, non-seasonal workers in specific industries and with specific occupations” that meet certain requirements. However, a brief created by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, in conjunction with fifteen other migrant worker support organizations, finds that only a fraction of the eligible farm workers they supported were able to actually apply for the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot. Employers were unwilling to provide job offer letters in timely ways, used the pilot to stoke competition amongst workers, spread misinformation, and undermined English language testing processes. The brief argues that the program doesn’t ensure adequate access to residency for workers, and that a replacement is urgently needed.
Farm workers continue to be vulnerable to coercion, manipulation, and abuse by their employers, who may not even necessarily be farmers themselves. In August 2022, the sixth Jamaican migrant farm worker in a decade died as a result of an accident on an Ontario farm. That same month, Jamaican farm workers penned an open letter to the Jamaican government, describing their working conditions in Ontario as “systematic slavery.” Their grievances included overcrowded housing with pests, surveillance by employers through video cameras, and verbal harassment by employers – including threats of deportation. The Jamaican government responded by dispatching a fact-finding delegation to investigate working conditions at different farms, resulting in official findings that ran counter to worker allegations. Yet the complaints have continued, with workers at a farm they say was not visited by the delegation now sharing their experience with the media.
In June 2023, workers sent videos to the Jamaica Observer that showed flooding in their open-plan living quarters. Also featured was a video recording an interaction with their manager, who aggressively accused them of pouring grease into the drainage system. Another common complaint is the lack of dignity and privacy these workers suffer, their bosses treating them as disposable and replaceable. The workers went on an illegal strike, and many of their peers and supporters took to social media to show their support.
This kind of tactic – workers taking the initiative and organizing to make their awful work conditions visible to a broader public – resembles those favoured by the CIW, which has helped workers navigate similar grievances. For example, after several years of investigation, a US District Court Judge determined in December 2022 that LVH, a farm labour contracting company, was a criminal enterprise that exploited farm workers. The company was found to have imposed gruelling working conditions, threatened to deport workers, and confiscated their passports. Notably, the grocery retailer Kroger, which has held out on signing onto the Fair Food Program, was a purchaser of the LVH’s products. In March 2023, CIW hosted the “Build a New World” march which began in Pahokee, Florida, where captive LVH workers were discovered, and ended in the billionaire enclave of Palm Beach. Since the march, CIW has been featured on the popular late-night show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – bringing migrant farm workers’ struggles to the attention of a mass audience.
Such wins have the power to build confidence across borders. In April 2023, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers welcomed a delegation of Chilean growers, activists, and officials interested in implementing the Fair Food Program model in the Chilean agricultural industry. In the words of Arlette Martinez, of the Chilean Ministry of Labour and Social Provisions: “When I first heard about the Fair Food Program it was like – this blew my mind. We believe that better working conditions don’t just change a person’s life at work day-to-day, [but they] make a better world for [all of] us.” And before states backed such programs, there were workers struggling to bring them into being, with incredible tenacity in the face of limited legal or trade-union protections.
Annie Faye Cheng is a cook and writer based in Queens, New York City. Her work focuses on the intersection of race, food, and power. Connect with her on Instagram at @achg.kitchen.