Sunday May 29, 2016

Opinion: Local food lovers, pay attention to migrant worker rights

Many Canadian businesses rely on migrant labour.

Many Canadian businesses rely on migrant labour. (CBC)

Listen 11:08

Next time you sit down to a farm-to-table dinner, Chris Ramsaroop wants you to ask yourself two questions: who harvested that food and what kind of rights do they have? 

Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, says if Canadians are really focused on achieving social justice through a local food economy, then they need to start paying attention to the migrant workers who participate in that economy. 

It's about improving standards to make sure that from the farms to our table, there is social justice and equality for all. - Chris Ramsaroop

The issue of migrant worker rights was front and centre recently when CBC News told the story of Jamaican migrant farm worker Sheldon McKenzie.

McKenzie had worked between Jamaica and Canada for over a decade, until he was injured on an Ontario tomato farm. 

The 39-year-old father of two died in a Canadian hospital, but his cousin says the government tried to remove him from the country — since McKenzie could no longer work, he was no longer welcome in Canada. 

Ramsaroop says McKenzie's case highlights the inherent racism in how migrant programs are currently structured.

He says others have documented how the Canadian government changed the parameters of migrant worker programs once the influx of labour shifted from Europe to what he calls the "global south" — countries in the south like Mexico and Jamaica. 

In the 1940s and 50s, with the arrival of Dutch and Polish farm workers to Canada, they were provided with access to residency... why can't we do the same for the Caribbean and Mexican workers? Why do we see them as different? - Chris Ramsaroop

As the workforce changed, Ramsaroop says access to status, employment insurance, healthcare and education were denied. 

"I think race and the idea that migrant workers from the global south will accept any terrible conditions is what leads and justifies the ongoing program as it it today," he says.