Farm Workers: “dis is not slavery/ just poverty / speaking to democracy”

i am a H2 worka
pickin apple inna florida
i am a H2 worka
hopin dat tings will be betta
suh don’t tek mi fi granted and pass mi
like is only cane and apple yu si
don’t tek it fi joke and run mi
den sen to mi govament fi more a wi
dis is not slavery
just poverty
talking to democracy

— Excerpt from the poem “H2 Worka” by Mutabaruka

Mutabaruka, the renowned Jamaican dub poet, accurately captures the lament and pain of migrant farm workers who labour in Ontario and the rest of Canada. These offshore workers come from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines and other Third World areas.

Over the Thanksgiving long weekend in Canada, we enjoyed the bountiful harvest from the farms in this country and the United States in the company of friends and relatives. We probably shared stories of success, challenges and plans for the future.

But did we reflect on the people who made that food possible? No, I am not referring to those mythic and stoic farmers of Canadian legends. I am hinting at the migrant farm workers whose sweat, tears, lives and broken and injured bodies went into producing the cheap food that we all enjoy in the great North that is supposedly fair, strong and free.

I am also referring to the over 25,000 migrant workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program (SAWP) from Mexico and the Caribbean who spend up to eight months per year on farms across Canada. Migrant workers from Thailand, Philippines, Guatemala and Honduras are also finding themselves on these same farms and fields through the Temporary Foreign
Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP), which is even more exploitive. These off-shore workers contribute to the valuable, but exploited work that makes possible the $10 billion in annual income from the farm sector in Ontario.

When Mutabaruka rhymed: “don’t tek it fi joke and run mi / den sen to mi govament fi more a wi”, he is speaking about a sad and disgraceful reality in Canada. When migrant agricultural workers complain about their condition of work, they may be sent home at their own expense and without an appeal process to contest their expulsion.

Many Third World governments are in cahoots with this system of exploitation. They are dependent on the foreign exchange earned from these migrant workers and the SAWP and TFWP are sources of relief for the unemployment pressure at home. These governments have no interest in vigorously protecting their citizens because strong advocacy could force the Canadian state to go to other countries or regions with surplus labour.

The farmers in Canada know that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the Caribbean, Mexico and Asia who are willing to do farm labour in Canada. Under plantation slavery in the Americas, the enslavers treated their horses and other materials much better than the enslaved Africans.

The plantation masters did so, because they had a cheap and ready source of labour in Africa. It is not an accident that Mutabaruka protested against seeing migrant workers as mere cane and apple. They are not seen as people, but creatures that help the profit margins of the farm’s operation.

It is not a stretch to see similarities between the systems of slavery and indentureship that were used against enslaved African and indentured South Asian labour in the Caribbean, respectively. The fear of poverty as a constant companion has replaced the whip. It is not the workers who mostly benefit from their backbreaking labour. They are transported across borders to toil in unsafe working conditions, with the connivance of legal authorities or governmental systems.

No wonder Mutabaruka had to admonish the farmers and governments that “dis is not slavery” and the workers are really poor working-class people “hopin dat tings will be betta.”

On the score of “talking to democracy” by resisting migrant workers, I was truly inspired and encouraged by the Justicia for Migrant Workers organized Pilgrimage to Freedom march on October 10th from Leamington (Tomato Capital of Canada), Ontario to city of Windsor, across from Detroit. This march was a 50-kilometre trek.

About 100 migrant workers and their allies carried out this historic march so as to highlight issues such as workers paying in mandatory schemes such as Unemployment Insurance from which they do not get any benefits, exposure to pesticides and farm equipment without adequate training, migrant workers working many years in Canada without the possibility of achieving permanent residency rights, workers being sent home after experiencing serious long-term illness on the job, or not having the right to form or join a union.

We may recall that on September 10, 2010, two Jamaican migrant farm workers, Ralston White, 36, and Paul Roach, 44 died from exposure to gas from an apple cider vat that they were fixing. As Canadians, we need to stand in solidarity with migrant workers and not let governments and private interests exploit them in the name of a cheap food policy and the financial bottom-line.

On the question of marching in solidarity with the migrant workers, it was politically embarrassing to see so few trade union members and trade union organizations as well as members of the various Marxist and anarchist “sects” from Southern Ontario. In my judgment, organized labour and these erstwhile revolutionaries do not like labour initiatives that they cannot colonize and control. I really hope that wasn’t the case in the Pilgrimage to Freedom march.

It is not enough to sing Solidarity Forever or shove revolutionary newspapers or publications in the face of members of the racialized, working-class. The missing in action stunt of these class warriors was worthy of a “Class Solidarity Raspberry Award”. It’s a very deserving and well earned citation given that we’re dealing with issues pertaining to the most exploited section of the working-class in Canada.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator and a journalistic activist. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence and the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity. Read other articles by Ajamu.