The Sunday Magazine

A thank you dinner for the 'forgotten' migrant workers who pick Canada's food

Migrant farm workers from the Caribbean and Latin America toil in the blazing sun, but live largely in the shadows. Except when a businesswoman in Leamington, Ont., throws them a party — a feast full of the tastes and sounds of home. Alisa Siegel takes us to that 2019 party in her documentary "The Forgotten Ones."
Every year 50,000 migrant workers travel to Canada from all over the globe to harvest produce under the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program. Ten per cent of these laborers end up in the small town of Leamington, Ont. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

Originally published on September 06, 2019.

In a normal year, 50,000 migrant labourers from the Caribbean, Mexico and beyond can come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. But 2020 has been different. The pandemic has hit migrant agricultural workers particularly hard.

About 1500 of them in the Leamington, Ont. area have tested positive for the coronavirus. Three have died. The hardships of quarantine and isolation have only heightened the stresses of their lives — and brought greater scrutiny on their living and working conditions.

The fallout of the pandemic has also meant temporary foreign agricultural workers are no longer working quite so much in the shadows of the food industry — they've become front page news and a political issue.

Before this summer, though, a businesswoman in Leamington — someone who knows what it's like to be down on your luck — would throw a party, just for them. Joan Grey would book a local hall and recruit volunteers to prepare jerk chicken and pork, rice and beans. There would be live gospel music, games and a lot of laughs. It was her way of saying thank you. And the farm workers would come in droves.

A year ago, Alisa Siegel visited Grey and some of the migrant workers she'd come to know. Her documentary, The Forgotten Ones first aired in September 2019.


In the winter, when they usually arrive, they quake in the unfamiliar cold. In the summer, they get so hot their boots and shoes fill with sloshy sweat.

The work is back-breaking. They pick tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, grapes, cucumbers and peppers.

All these beautiful vegetables and fruits that we have on our table, where did it come from? These are migrant workers who are working to pick it ... They give to us and we should give back to them- Joan Grey

Each year, 50,000 migrant labourers come to Canada from the Caribbean, Mexico and beyond through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

More than ten per cent of those workers end up in the small town of Leamington, Ont. — Tomato Capital of Canada. Greenhouse Capital of the World.

Years of painstaking work

Images from Joan Grey's annual party for the migrant workers. She books a local hall, recruits volunteers to prepare jerk chicken and pork, rice and beans. (Submitted by Joan Grey)

Some have been coming for more than 25 years. Season after season. Mostly men, mostly alone, for up to eight months at a time.

They sleep in bunkhouses. Airfare to and from Canada is deducted from their earnings.

They buy their own food and supplies. They work six, sometimes seven days a week.

There's not a lot of reason to celebrate. And not many opportunities either.

A reason to celebrate

Joan Grey runs an annual clothing drive for migrant workers each winter under her charity Unity Hopeful. Additionally, Grey throws a party for the migrant workers hired to work the fields through the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program. As a local businesswoman in Lemington, it's her way of saying thank you to those who travel from their homes to work in Canadian fields. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

But one night every summer, a local businesswoman in Leamington named Joan Grey  — who knows what it's like to be down on your luck — throws a party, just for them. She books a local hall, recruits volunteers to prepare jerk chicken and pork, rice and beans. 

There's live gospel music, games and a lots of laughs. The farm workers come in droves.

It's Grey's way to show the migrant workers they're not invisible. "I call them the forgotten workers," she said. 

"All these beautiful vegetables and fruits that we have on our table, where did it come from? These are migrant workers who are working to pick it... They give to us and we should give back to them," Grey said. 

This is a feeling like we're back home ...  I get to see a lot of black people and say, 'Oh, I feel like I'm home. I'm back in Jamaica'- Migrant worker

"[In Jamaica], we are friendly people. If you pass someone on the road you don't know, they say hi to you and they wave and you see a genuine smile. But being here I've noticed it's different. It's a culture shock for me, to pass someone and not have someone acknowledge your presence," one migrant worker at the party told The Sunday Edition's documentary producer Alisa Siegel.

"Sometimes you will even try and say hi to them, and they just ignore you. It plays on your mind. It makes you feel less than who you are."

At the party, it's a completely different atmosphere. 

"This is a feeling like we're back home ... I get to see a lot of black people and say, 'Oh, I feel like I'm home. I'm back in Jamaica,'" another worker said. 

Click 'listen' above to hear Alisa Siegel's 2019 documentary "The Forgotten Ones."

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