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Vinita Srivastava (VS): From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’m Vinita Srivastava.
Min Sook Lee (MSL): Worker rights under the pandemic have been deeply compromised and we’re talking about a group of workers in which their set of rights were already very precarious. The pandemic has increased the control of worker rights and worker freedoms.
VS: When COVID-19 first hit, I found myself thinking about the essential workers, like many of us: doctors, hospital staff, those working in grocery stores, that’s where my mind went. What I didn’t immediately think about were the tens of thousands of migrant workers who arrive in Canada every year. These are the folks that make up about one-sixth of the workforce of those who grow, produce and pack the food that we eat and serve to our families.
Today, we’re going to talk about migrant workers, one of the communities hardest hit by COVID-19. You may have heard in the news about the outbreaks on farms and in meat processing plants. But for the most part, migrant workers have been largely invisible in our society. My guest today, Min Sook Lee, calls them “The Unseen.” Min Sook is an associate professor at OCAD University in Toronto, where she examines the intersections of art and social change. But she is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has chronicled the migrant worker experience in Canada for over a decade.
Her feature, Migrant Dreams, explores the story of those who come here under the country’s temporary foreign workers program. It’s a system, she says, that treats them like modern day indentured workers. And she’s got so much more to say on the subject, which is why Min Sook was one of the very first people I thought of when we decided we wanted to talk about migrant workers and their place in Canada today.
VS: Min Sook, I have so much I want to ask you, and so I’m going to just jump right in. What were some of your first thoughts when COVID-19 first hit?
MSL: When the lockdown was declared and we witnessed all around us the alarm of the global pandemic and the very first thing I heard was social distancing — that what would protect you from COVID-19 was social distancing. And immediately I knew migrant workers would be in trouble because migrant workers do not have control of their own space. Social distancing is a luxury. It means you can control the space that you live and work in. And migrant workers are regularly housed in very crowded living conditions. Oftentimes I have seen workers living 20, 30 in a garage that has no windows and is used to store farm equipment when workers are not living in the garage, with one or two bathrooms that are accessible. I have also seen that migrant workers work very close, cheek to cheek, elbow to elbow in the greenhouse spaces and factory lines when they’re processing foods, fruits or cutting fish. So I knew that the pandemic, which was sending alarm bells across the world — what was required to protect yourself from the pandemic, social distancing, would be unavailable and inaccessible to migrant workers because they are required to work very closely to each other, number one. But even more concerning, they often are housed in living conditions that are very crowded and they can’t control the spaces that they live and work in because of the laws of Canada’s migrant worker program.
VS: Are you in touch with some of the folks that you have interviewed over the years? Do you continue to hear from them?
MSL: Yes, and I’m not going to name names because workers often need to have their identities protected. There were two workers out on the West Coast. They were sent back by their employer because they were in communication with community organizers in the West Coast working on a farm. And they agreed to receive some food and support because community organizers saw that migrant workers were — ordinarily migrant workers are very isolated. They are kept away from the non-migrant worker population. And oftentimes employers ensure that migrant workers do not have very much contact with Canadians. So it’s a kind of isolation that I think most Canadians could not imagine. Where what I have seen is that a migrant worker would arrive in the airport, let’s say, on a 4:00 a.m. flight from Mexico or from the Caribbean. They’ll be picked up by a broker or someone who works in the farm, maybe the employer or supervisor, driven to their living quarters and the next morning they’re expected to show up at work. Then it’s seven days a week of work and oftentimes where they’re working on farms, which are really isolated and rural communities, and getting access to go grocery shopping, to do some banking or to do any kind of activity outside of work, is monitored and requires transportation from the employer, and it requires that kind of organization. So the isolation of migrant workers is extreme. And in the West Coast, when COVID hit, there were workers who were concerned about the quarantine measures that were being applied to them, required of them, and their employer immediately put down measures such as no guest visitors, no leaving premises after a certain set number of hours. And then the workers were also not able to go shopping during the quarantine time or if they were ill. And the food that they were being provided was not adequate. And so they were community organizers that delivered food to the workers. And once the employer found out, the employer sent those two workers back to Mexico because the employer decided that they had contravened the rules of the farm. So workers being punished for speaking out is a frequent occurrence. So I’ll be careful about naming workers. But yes, I have spoken to workers that I have filmed with. One of them was working in a farm, on a mushroom farm in Ontario, and this worker contracted COVID, tested positive, and what the boss did was put them in a house with other workers some were positive and some were negative. So the worker I know who was sick was put in a house with workers who were and were not sick and they were sharing bathrooms. This worker was given no information, and then they were quarantined for two weeks. And for the first week, they actually didn’t even know whether they would be receiving any money, any food, what would happen. And it was mutual aid from their fellow migrant workers that supported them over the very first week, which was really terrifying because they had heard a lot of scary stories about COVID. And then after week one the employer gave them some information that they would be able to apply for some emergency funds, which they did. But during that entire time, the employer was responsible for providing them food because they were under quarantine and also housing.
VS: There must be fear all around in this case, fear for those who have it and fear for those who don’t, and that must cause divisions as well?
MSL: Yeah, there’s a lot of fear and tension on farms pre-COVID fear of a job loss because there’s so much at stake tied to holding on to this job in Canada. But since COVID workers have arrived very afraid of their own health, they know that workers have died in Ontario. They are aware that there are workers who are working alongside each other, some who are sick, some who are asymptomatic, some they don’t know. And they’re aware that their boss isn’t providing appropriate housing. And then when workers are sick, the kind of food that they’re being offered is barely enough. The one worker I know who is sick, he was terrified the entire time and he is very depressed because he is aware that workers alongside him are sick. Workers in the plant were working while they were ill. He knew this and had nowhere to report it to and didn’t believe anyone would believe him anyways.
VS: And then, as you’re saying, there’s the fear of being sent home or sent away.
MSL: The fear of being sent home is a constant running fear for many workers, because that’s the reality of Canada’s migrant worker program. It’s designed to keep workers in line with a strict control that is exercised by employers. And the control that’s exercised by employers is through the power employers have to send workers back, to repatriate workers. Workers come into Canada under tied work permits, which means that their status in Canada, their job in Canada, is only secure as long as the relationship with their boss is good. I think for any of us to imagine that our boss would have that kind of power over us, our livelihood, our living conditions, who we speak to or any of us to imagine our boss having that kind of control of us — it’s really it’s unimaginable. And that’s why the term we talk about when we describe the program as modern day indentureship. Where workers arrive and they are tied to this one employer, they have no labour mobility. They don’t have the proper protections. I’ve seen workers in greenhouses handling pesticides and chemicals and not having appropriate masks or gloves or the kind of protective clothing you’re supposed to have. And they’re given garbage bags, literally garbage bags, and told, “Make a hole in the top and the sides and put it over your body and shoot your head over the garbage bag.” And that’s going to be your protective layer as you spray these really dangerous chemicals. I know workers who’ve lost eyesight, who’ve gone blind from pesticide exposure, workers who’ve lost fingers and limbs. And so now during the time of the pandemic the worksite has become just doubly lethal for workers.
VS: It’s tragic that the spotlight is on now because so many workers are getting sick and dying.
MSL: In the pandemic what has happened to workers is that they have been blamed for outbreaks on farms, and that’s exactly the opposite of what should be happening. Employers were able to secure millions of dollars from the federal government for pandemic preparedness, and workers were also working alongside sick workers. So all the kinds of provisions and protections that we were told employers were taking during the pandemic, those failed workers miserably. On top of that, workers were blamed for the outbreak and the social stigma of COVID was applied to the worker when, in fact, industry and employers should have been held responsible. We had Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, shaming workers and blaming workers and saying workers were not co-operating with testing, when that was not true. Workers were very afraid for their lives. They wanted to know that they could be safe while working in Canada, and they were aware they were not being provided the adequate safety protections that were required under the pandemic. And increasingly, what has happened under the pandemic is an increase and intensity of surveillance and intensity of control over workers’ mobilities. So employers have now put on curfews on the farm so workers can’t leave at certain times. There’s been talk in Leamington, Ont., for example, of establishing the zones where workers will be barricaded in and expected to just stay within the approved zones. So the regulation and the restriction of worker movement has been discussed in really problematic ways that conjure up ideas of some kind of labour camp.
MSL: So this is why worker rights under the pandemic have been deeply compromised. And we’re talking about a group of workers whose set of rights were already very precarious. The pandemic has increased the control of worker rights and worker freedoms.
VS: Social distancing, and for a while when we were in lockdown, stay home. What I’m hearing you say is that home is not home. It’s a very dangerous place. It’s overcrowded and there’s no distance.
MSL: We couldn’t feed Canadians without the labour of migrant workers. Many people think we’re talking about family farms with a few chickens and pigs and cows and three generations of farmers working hard out in the sun. That’s not the picture of industrial agriculture or factory farming that’s underway in Canada that produces most of the food that we eat. We’re looking at greenhouses that are 10 football fields in length. These are massive industrial operations and there are hundreds of workers working in these greenhouse operations. And so when we’re talking about the fact that we have an industry that requires a flexible workforce that is controllable and that is factored into the exponential profit that they realize year after year, because they know that the money, the expense spent on labour is manufactured as low. There have been billions of profits made through this industry on the backs of migrant workers who are unfree. They can’t change their employer, they can’t change their job site. And most workers are in Canada without a pathway to citizenship, without a pathway to permanent residency, without a pathway to status. So most workers are here in Canada working and paying taxes, paying into CPP, Canada pension plans, paying into EI, the employment insurance plan. They’re paying basic consumer taxes with everything they purchase. So they’re paying into Canada’s tax system and yet they have no pathway, virtually no pathway to citizenship.
VS: Why do you think that pathway is blocked? What do you think that is about?
MSL: You know, the restricted pathways to citizenship are designed. They’re designed to keep Canada looking the way it does and primarily keeping …. The majority of workers who come into Canada under the migrant worker program come from the Global South. Most of the workers are racialized workers, most workers come to do the jobs most Canadians don’t want to do. The 3D jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous.
You could say that the picture of Canada as this rosy postcard of Canada as a country that invites diversity from people all over the world. And the doorways are open and the opportunity’s here knock and we’ll invite you in. Well, the reality we know is that the front doors to Canada are blocked. There are long waiting lists and increasingly there are more and more onerous restrictions on immigration pathways to Canada. The back door is wide open for temporary migrant workers to do the essential work that industries need, but that back door ensures that you will remain permanently non-status. So you’re not here under a temporary foreign worker program as a temporary worker because your labour is only needed on a temporary basis.
VS: But that temporary basis could last for years and years, right? It’s not like — that person could actually be working here for decades.
MSL: Right, so the label of temporary is constructed. Migrant workers are not here on a temporary basis. The labour of migrant workers is required constantly. There is a chronic labour shortage in very specific industries. And instead of addressing the immigration backlog in the front doors, our federal government would prefer to use the migrant worker program as a convenient back door entry that addresses industry needs, ensures industry profits, but doesn’t address the critical labour shortage.
VS: When you talk about this being like a very challenging issue, how much of these attitudes and policies have to do with race, the fact that these are Black and brown bodies doing the work and the labour?
MSL: Oh, yes, this is a racist program, undoubtedly. Without a doubt. How is this program designed? I think we have to recognize the history of a program like this began with the settlement of Canada. The colonial history of Canada is very much aligned to and part of the creation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. So, back from the 1800s, when Canada had to build railroads to connect towns dotted across the landscape, the people that they needed to build the railroads, the labour that was required, Canada set up a migrant worker program to bring in Chinese workers to do the work on the railways, Chinese workers who would do the work for less pay than white workers and do the most dangerous tracts of work using dynamite in the Rockies, for example. So the programs that were set up in the 1800s to bring Chinese workers in were designed to extract labour, but also to deter settlement. They were allowed on a certain period of time and then they were expected to go, never expected to settle.
VS: You’ve been doing this for a while. You’ve been documenting migrant workers long before COVID, have you seen any dramatic changes in their conditions or any improvement or dramatic changes for the worse?
MSL: No, I think that things have gotten actually even more strikingly concerning. You know, one of the things that you talked about in the beginning in your intro, you said that I called migrant workers unseen. And the idea that workers are unseen, that is deliberate. There’s a constructed way workers are unseen. I’d like to offer that as a thought around the history of migrant worker program and how racist they are and how there’s a design to the migrant worker programs that are steeped in race and racism.
VS: On this podcast, we’ve been talking a lot about the idea of resilience in the face of things like this. How much resilience do you see in these men and women that you meet?
MSL: Quite a bit. Most of the workers are men. I’d say over 90 per cent of migrant workers are men in Canada who work on farms. Then in the 1990s, things shifted dramatically and Canada’s temporary foreign worker program expanded. So now we have over 80 source countries that are participating in the TFWP, but the majority of countries that are sending workers to do the low-paid menial work with very little access to citizenship, those are countries from the Global South and in the TFWP you have private brokers emerging as key players, private brokers that are charging workers $5,000, $10,000, $14,000.
VS: Fourteen thousand dollars?
MSL: This fee is technically illegal, but no one monitors recruiters, the activities of recruiters. And so they operate fundamentally as the middle person between the employer and the worker, they secure the worker their position in the firm, and they also manage the workforce. So they pick the worker up at the airport. They ensure the worker’s got some kind of housing and they are the ones communicating directly with workers.
VS: If you owe somebody $7,000-$14,000, that’s indentured labour. I’m sure they want to keep close track of you.
MSL: Oh, yes. Most workers can’t pay that. So they pay maybe a few thousand upfront and then agreed to pay the rest off of their weekly check. There’s a 10–15 per cent cut that goes to the recruiter for years, years, sometimes three to five years. So workers arrive already indebted to a private recruiter. That’s very common. So they’re bonded labour. Yeah, I would say they’ve gotten worse. I would say that the symbolic gestures of the federal government have gotten more pronounced. And it’s been much more clear that we have an industry that requires the labour of these essential workers. And at the same time, the workers do not have access to the same set of rights that Canadians expect workers in Canada to have. But no one’s taken action to change the living conditions and the working conditions and the very program that designs the vulnerability of the workers. Workers are not innately vulnerable or there’s nothing inevitable about workers being exploited. We’ve designed this program and people benefit and profit from it. Now, you are asking about resilience of workers and I think migrant workers who come to Canada are incredibly resilient and very creative and very much workers who understand the oppression that’s built into the labour program. And I don’t think workers come in without recognizing how deeply exploitative the program is. But many times workers don’t have a choice. So coming to work as a migrant worker, leaving your family and working abroad is not a choice if it’s about survival. I would say that over the years I’ve seen workers with great courage and insist on their humanity and fight back. Oftentimes workers who fight back are the ones who are targeted by the boss and sent back home and then new workers are brought in. So I’ve seen that constantly play out. There have been many workers who have resisted and fought back and they don’t stay in Canada long. But there are also many who have fought back and they’ve made a difference.
VS: I’m also wondering about your own personal journey, like what sparked your interest in migrant workers that made you want to devote such a large part of your life to this issue?
MSL: How I got involved was through worker resistance. So back in 1999, I met a friend of mine who was a labour activist, Chris Ramsaroop, and Chris was organizing an information fact-finding tour of migrant worker farms in Leamington, Ont. I ran into Chris in Toronto and he told me that migrant workers were organizing and that some had gone on a wildcat strike in Leamington, Ont. And I remember thinking, one, I didn’t know we had migrant workers in Canada. I wasn’t familiar with that. I thought it was a U.S. problem. And number two, I remember thinking if migrant workers are going on a wildcat strike, then things must be really bad. And it’s only four hours from Toronto to Leamington, Ont. We went on a bus and I was so struck by the fact that there was this large population of migrant workers who lived in a parallel universe, almost, I could say, like a parallel universe of Canadians. And there was this active unseen that was practised. Migrant workers walking on the sidewalk alongside Canadians and Canadians would just unsee them. And there were hundreds. If you go to Leamington, you’ll see — or any area where there are migrant workers — but particularly Leamington, because that’s sort of ground zero for migrant worker populations in Ontario. What I saw was there were certain pockets of the parts of the streets where there were little tiendas or the church where migrant workers go on the Sundays. There were areas where migrant workers would congregate and hang around. But much of the townscape actively — there was no connection between the Canadian township and the migrant worker community.
VS: Min Sook I’m looking at the time, so I’m going to ask you one last question. What do you hope for the way forward? But also how can the average person help?
MSL: I think that we need to finally ask ourselves who’s profiting from the migrant worker program as it currently exists in Canada? It’s benefiting somebody, who? And then we can ask ourselves, if you’re not comfortable, if you don’t feel it’s OK, if it doesn’t support your own personal community values, that we have a program in Canada that’s designed to exploit, control, dominate workers and to refuse them a set of labour and human rights that Canadians expect anybody in this country to have access to. If that’s not OK with you, then what do we do with this program? Well, I think the obvious thing is status on arrival. Workers should have access to PR.
VS: So they they arrive at the airport, or they arrive in Canada, and they immediately get some kind of residency status.
MSL: Absolutely. And there are carrots that have been suggested. Many employers in the industry do actually support and argue for PR, but they want it controlled by employers. They want to have it as a pathway that’s long and drawn out for three to five years and that employers control. What happens then is that workers are even more controlled by employers because the employer will say, if you put up, shut up, then you’ll get the carrot at the end of five years.
VS: Right, right.
MSL: And that kind of disproportionate control over someone’s destiny should never be given to one individual.
VS: No, that’s scary. Yeah, that’s a lot of scary control.
MSL: What you are going to create are citizen tyrants. So I think people need to ask themselves the very serious question of this country that we live in. How do you ensure that the values and the beliefs that we say we support are put into practise?
VS: I’m wondering if there’s anything … somebody listening to us talking about this and feeling like they need to do something. What can they do?
MSL: It’s the political will. I think the political will to change Canada’s migrant worker program must come from people who are activating their voice within systems that we currently have, getting in touch with their MPs and their MPPs and being able to say very unequivocally: the program, it’s from the 1800s. Why do we still have this program? It’s time to redesign a new program that answers our economic and industry needs and that is aligned with the social justice, human rights values that Canadians support. It’s also talking about the program, as you said in the beginning, workers are oftentimes unseen, they’re not unseen because we can’t physically see them. They’re constructed as inconvenient, and so they’re constructed as unseen. So we need to be talking about the migrant worker program with our neighbours, with our family members. Speaking up about it and ensuring that communities in which workers live and work in, that those workers are not isolated or alone. There are many organizations in Canada that have spent decades and decades working on migrant worker rights. So getting in touch with either the volunteer driven grassroots organizations that are fighting for migrant worker justice or the unions, or there are interfaith groups that are also working with migrant workers in many food organizations, food-based food sustainability organizations.
So there’s a broad range of groups that have been fighting for migrant worker rights and getting in touch with those are — there are many across the country from every city in the country, now. I know there are active organizations that have been very vocal on migrant worker rights. And so connecting with one of those, certainly.
VS: Min Sook, do you have any last thoughts before we close up today?
MSL: One of the very basic things we need is access to food. And for Canadians to get through the pandemic by essentially treating migrant workers as disposable in our own food system, in our economic and political systems — we can’t accept that. So I think the one thing that we can take away from this current moment that we’re in is that our existing systems, structures that support how we produce food, how we build our food systems and our labour systems, they’re unjust. And we can’t continue to do that. We did that before the pandemic, but during the pandemic the inhumane treatment of migrant workers has intensified. We have to get through the pandemic by not sacrificing a category of people. We have to get through the pandemic by realizing that the systems of inequities are not acceptable and we can change them.
VS: It does feel overwhelming sometimes, I really appreciate your vision that we can change it.
MSL: Yes, we can change it, and not only can we but we have to. We don’t have a choice.
VS: Thank you so much for all your time today. I really appreciate it.
MSL: Thank you for having me, Vinita.
VS: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’d love to know what you’re thinking after that conversation with Min Sook Lee. I’m on Twitter at @WriteVinita, also tag @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient.
If you want to learn more about the migrant worker experience or check out some of Min Sook’s work, go to theconverstion.com. That’s also where you’ll find our show notes with links to stories and research connected to our conversation today.
Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me Vinita Srivastava. Our producers are Nahid Buie, Nehal El-Hadi and Vicky Mochama, with additional editorial help from our intern Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our technical producer and sound guru. Anowa Quarcoo is in charge of marketing and production design. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. Special thanks also to Jennifer Moroz for her indispensable help on this project. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.
Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until next time I am Vinita, and please, don’t call me resilient.