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Migrant workers who pick Canada's food

Every year 50,000 migrant workers travel to Canada from all over the globe to harvest produce under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. They come mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean; small island nations like Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadine, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Ten per cent of these labourers end up in the small town of Leamington, Ontario, Canada – Tomato Capital of Canada. Greenhouse Capital of the World.

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.

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.

But one night every summer, a local businesswoman in Leamington named Joan Grey, throws a party just for them. She books a local hall, recruits volunteers to prepare jerk chicken and pork, rice and beans. It’s her way of saying thank you to those who travel from their homes to work in Canadian fields, and for all of the beautiful vegetables and fruits that Canadians have on their table.

For these workers, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is a way of making more money than they can make in their home countries. However, some see the program as an exploitation of vulnerable workers from the Global South. Indeed, migrant workers have been an enduring feature of international migration since the first patterns of migration began after 1492 when Europeans explored, conquered, and colonized other parts of the world.

Listen to the full story on CBC Sunday Morning here.

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