Case: Migrant Farm Workers

Courtney Jane Clause

Access to Information in the Agri-Food Sector: Can Better Communication Help Protect Migrant Workers?
Courtney Jane Clause completed her BA in Criminology & Socio-legal at the University of Toronto, and her MA in Communication & Media Studies at Carleton University. This case study is based on her thesis research focusing on access to information for workers enrolled in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which she completed at Carleton University.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify and explain the key information needs of migrant workers.
  • Describe the implications of information quality on worker well-being.
  • Consider how these concepts relate to broader labour and food studies areas, such as neoliberalism, disposable workforces, and community-based approaches to food systems.


The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is a labour program negotiated between Canada and twelve participating countries intended to combat labour shortages in the agri-food sector. Workers reside in Canada for up to eight months while cultivating, planting, harvesting, sorting, and packing produce. Studies on SAWP show that, overall, the program requires significant overhaul. Workers often suffer through inadequate housing conditions, increased health concerns, unsafe working conditions, social isolation, and arbitrary dismissal and deportation, among other challenges. Most research around SAWP focuses on ways to resolve these issues, rather than abolition of the program, as it represents a vital source of income for many workers.

When studying SAWP, scholars, activists, and community organizations have often called attention to what may be termed the information barrier—poor, unclear, or sometimes entirely absent communication around key issues. These include translation options, legal rights, program processes, job training, public awareness, social integration, health resources, and navigating Canadian systems and services. The information barrier also includes unequal access to the internet, language and literacy constraints, and related concerns beyond information resources.

Studies increasingly recognize that workers require information beyond program processes, as they not only work in Canada, but also live in Canada. Healthcare workers, for example, express that there are difficulties in making workers aware of services, which can have an impact on whether they even seek access to healthcare services at all. Increased risk of sexual illnesses among SAWP workers, as another example, has been tied to information and communication failures among these specific populations.[1]

This disparate access to information exists alongside increased vulnerabilities across many areas of life and work—unsafe working conditions, frequency of arbitrary dismissal, increased health concerns, and so on. Successful information sharing around these areas is therefore especially important. For example, advocacy groups report that many workers are not sufficiently aware of their legal rights in the workplace, and thus cannot fully exercise these rights.[2] In these examples, quality of information has important consequences for worker awareness, self-advocacy, and decision-making when it comes to their safety during program participation and life in Canada. Lack of information can affect the avenues that workers have to exercise their rights, seek advocacy and services, and demand better working and living environments for themselves. In this way, access to information is considered by several advocacy groups to be a right in and of itself, as it is a tool for actively creating the type of safe, beneficial program we hope to see.

farm worker in a row of strawberry plants, holding a cardboard carton
Figure 1: Salinas, California, USA – June 19, 2015: Seasonal farm workers pick and package strawberries. (photo: istock-486128216.jpg)

The COVID Pandemic

The COVID pandemic is one of many instances in which we have seen how crucial communication can be for SAWP workers’ well-being. As information changed rapidly, clear recommendations on how to navigate pandemic risks were difficult to obtain for many people. This was especially true for migrant workers. As SAWP workers tried to gain access to information and follow guidelines surrounding the pandemic, we have come to see how COVID has highlighted the existing information struggles within the program.

We can thus ask: How has the COVID pandemic intersected with the SAWP’s information barrier? What information do SAWP enrollees need to make safe decisions about their lives and labour during a health crisis? How does this relate to the types of information that SAWP enrollees need to make safe decisions about their life and labour in general?

COVID-19 and the Continued Lack of Information

Nobody told us what COVID-19 really is…we deserve to be treated better…our families expect us to come back home.”

In a report co-authored by two workers’ rights groups,[3] SAWP enrollees voiced their experiences with gaining access to information around the disease. In their words: “Nobody told us what COVID-19 really is…we deserve to be treated better…our families expect us to come back home.”[4] Similar stories appear in news outlets, as workers reveal that, in some cases, “neither the government nor [their] employer[s] provided information on workers’ rights during the pandemic.”[5] In the case of Spanish-speaking workers, many additionally struggled to find information and COVID testing options in their language.

Literature has demonstrated that, for decades, SAWP workers have been particularly vulnerable to abuse and, as a result, require robust information support on knowing and exercising their legal, health, safety, and mobility rights.[6] Workers have included increased access to information among their concerns in several program reviews.[7] During the pandemic, these information needs were compounded by social distancing and quarantine requirements, new protective equipment protocols, and increased sanitation recommendations. Reports suggest that information on these areas has not reached workers in timely or comprehensive ways.[8]

Seeing Information as a Safety and Self-Advocacy Tool

Most workers do not have access to the timely/detailed information about health risks or living and working conditions needed to weigh the risks of coming to Canada during a health crisis.

Without safe, transparent, and complete information, workers are making constrained decisions within high-risk environments. Within pandemic contexts, informed participation in the program is not possible if workers do not have clear understanding of the state of COVID in Canada, safeguards in place for SAWP enrollees, and current good practices for the public. Instead, workers are returning without adequate education on how COVID has affected health, housing, and work conditions within the country, and within the program more specifically. Research finds that “most [workers] do not have access to the timely/detailed information about health risks…[or] living and working conditions needed to weigh the risks of coming to Canada” during a health crisis.[9]

Well-informed decision-making regarding these risks is important—especially as, for SAWP populations, safety risks are heightened. Reports find that SAWP workers face greater risk of exposure and greater risk of infection.[10] Though statistics are likely conservative due to underreporting issues,[11] some local groups suggest that, as of August 2020, between 1,000[12] and 1,300[13] workers had contracted the virus in Ontario, with three reported deaths.[14] Both the positive cases and the number of deaths escalated in 2021. For example, one report shows five deaths since mid-March.[15] A second report records a death in April and one in June.[16] A third announcement in May adds another death.[17] These represent only a portion of COVID-related deaths. Vague communication regarding COVID has left many workers tolerating unsafe conditions to avoid being sent home. As advocacy groups attest, in the absence of clear guidelines, “…many workers wonder what to do to ensure that their health is taken care of, but it’s this idea that if they speak up, they won’t be able to return to Canada.”[18] Workers are required to weigh employment needs against health needs and, as in the above case, often feel they must continue working without adequate health and safety information.[19]

Many advocacy groups have identified clear communication and comprehensive information as important protections for SAWP workers. Within pandemic contexts, this might look like increasing “…available and consistent information…to evaluate health, safety, livelihood, and mobility implications of participating…” in the program during the pandemic. Here, good information and communication practices are understood to contribute to free and informed decision-making for workers.

Beyond COVID-related contexts, information-sharing recommendations have been wide-ranging: increased translation services, literacy and language classes, health and safety information, and education around legal rights, to name a few.[20] These are intended to equip workers with the necessary resources and skills to participate more safely in the program and in local Canadian communities. Each of these recommended areas recognize communication and information as tools towards empowerment, self-advocacy, and protection within SAWP contexts.

What Has COVID Taught us About the Future of Information-Sharing within SAWP?

Access to adaptive, prompt, and comprehensive information is a necessity, but it has proven challenging to provide it within a program lacking strong, well-supported information exchange. Details on health, safety, living conditions, and new workplace protocols have been, according to the examples above, sparse, unclear, and infrequently updated.

This is not a new phenomenon within SAWP. Information sharing around important topics like health, safety, communication needs, socializing, and community services have been lacking within the program for some time. Studies show that workers experience increased health risks, unsafe work conditions, lack of meaningful inclusion in program input or review, isolation and depression, and barriers to accessing community services and events.[21] We can speculate that poor education and awareness around these areas contribute at least partially to these challenges experienced by workers.

Disposable Workers vs. Community Members: How Might Access to Information Play a Role?

Studies on SAWP often connect the program to neoliberalism, which relies increasingly on market values to guide thought, action, and policy. These values are favoured over community approaches to well-being and, as a result, promote individual responsibility and reduce the availability of collective social protections. Studies argue that neoliberalism creates disposable workforces, which are valued for their ability to maximize productivity. Workers within disposable workforces are often not valued beyond these labour contributions. Turning workers into disposable workforces means that we “import workers, not people,” and their overall well-being often suffers.[22]

When this is applied to information sharing, it becomes clear that the concept of “workers, not people” would affect the type and quality of information available. When we believe that SAWP participants are only here to work, it is easy to see how, for example, literacy, social belonging, and personal health information are not made into significant parts of discussions, promotions, and education efforts. However, advocates have called for the valuing and care of workers as community members, rather than using them solely for the labour they provide. This includes ensuring they have access to well-rounded information that will help them work and live well. For example, information on upcoming social events and community organizations may reduce feelings of depression, isolation, and lack of belonging. Transparent information on program risks may help worker have a sense of choice and freedom, so that they feel less coerced in entering the program. Information on health services and legal rights may help them better safeguard their well-being during their time in Canada.

For many years, community groups, such as Justicia for Migrant Workers and Niagara Migrant Workers Interest Group, have been implementing these ideas in their local areas. In their daily work with SAWP migrants, they provide honest and caring information about program risks, social events, mental health supports, legal rights, communication needs, and even weekly grocery discounts or bus schedules. This approach to information treats worker well-being as a shared, community responsibility, and sees workers as people, not just units of labour.


“Though COVID-19 has brought these issues to light, they are neither new nor likely to disappear soon...workers may very well continue to lack information…under existing program structures which see them as disposable labour sources.

The COVID pandemic provides a pertinent context for examining communication techniques within parts of our food systems, in this instance, as they relate to the migrant workers who sustain these systems. Though COVID has brought these issues to light, they are neither new nor likely to disappear soon. Workers may very well continue to lack information on their many, varied needs under existing program structures which often see them as disposable labour sources.

When we understand migrant workers to be vital members of our food systems and community networks, we can expand the type and quality of information we provide them, towards truly supporting full personal and work lives. Community efforts that affirm their full existences, see them as vital community members, and attend to their information needs as such, are contributing to ongoing efforts to reform SAWP into a safe, healthy, and beneficial option for workers.

Importantly, well-rounded information is one aspect of a complex and layered issue. Without, for example, balanced work schedules, safe transportation, and effective translation services, information regarding healthcare does not necessarily enable access to healthcare. Attention to information-sharing should therefore always be considered alongside other reform efforts that seek to address the varied issues noted above.

Discussion Questions

  • What do agricultural workers contribute to our food systems? How is the well-being of workers related to other parts of our food systems?
  • What are the key information needs of SAWP workers?
  • What are some examples from the chapter in which access to information affected worker wellbeing?
  • What is another example in which having the right information would help migrant workers?
  • In addition to information, what other resources do migrant workers need in order to access rights and services?


Baobeid, A. 2020. “Human Rights and COVID-19: Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada at the Intersection of Human Rights and COVID-19.” Dalla Lana School of Public Health (August 6).

Basok, T., D. Bélanger, and E. Rivas. 2014. “Reproducing Deportability: Migrant Agricultural Workers in South-Western Ontario.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40 (9): 1394–1413.

Clause, C.J. 2020. “Vegetables and Viruses: How COVID-19 is Exposing the Information Barrier Within the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.” Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (blog), October 2.

Caxaj, C.S., and A. Cohen. 2019. “’I Will Not Leave My Body Here’: Migrant Farmworkers’ Health and Safety Amidst a Climate of Coercion.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16 (15): 2643-2656.

Cole, D. 2020. “Heightened COVID-19 Risks to Temporary Foreign (Migrant) Agricultural Workers (TFAWs) and Recommended Actions in the 2020 Agricultural Season: Occupational Medicine Perspective Paper.” Migrant Worker Health Project (June 4).

Grant, T., and I. Bailey. 2021. “Five Migrant Farm Workers Have Died Since Mid-March, Four While in COVID-19 Quarantine, Advocacy Group Says.” CBC News (May 5).

Government of Canada. 2019. “Primary Agriculture Review – What We Heard.” Government of Canada. (February 12).

Gerber, L. 2020. “If Canadian Consumers ‘Knew the Work, They’d Value the Workers.’” The Record (June 15).

Justicia for Migrant Workers (n.d.).  Submission of Justicia for Migrant Workers to the Standing Committee on the Review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. House of Commons.

Liu, S. 2020. “Farmers Worry About Labour Shortage with Travel Restrictions.” CTV News (March 20).

McLaughlin, J., D. Wells, A.D. Mendiburo, A. Lyn, and B. Vasilevska. 2017. “‘Temporary workers’, Temporary Fathers: Transnational Family Impacts of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.” Relations Industrielles 72 (4): 682-709.

Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group. 2020. “Recommendations for Overcoming Health Challenges Faced Migrant Agricultural Workers During the COVID-19 Virus Pandemic.” Migrant Worker Health Project (June 1).

Mojtehedzadeh, S. 2020. “Migrant Farm Workers from Jamaica are Being Forced to Sign COVID-19 Waivers.” Toronto Star (April 15).

Mysyk, A., England, M., & J.A. Avila Gallegos. 2009. “A Case for Certified Interpreters for Participants in the Canada/Mexico Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.” Human Organization 68 (3): 318–327.

Nakache, D., and P.J. Kinoshita. 2010. “The Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program: Do Short-Term Economic Needs Prevail Over Human Rights Concerns?” IRPP Study (5): 1–58.

Paz Ramirez, A.B. 2013. “Embodying and Resisting Labour Apartheid: Racism and Mexican Farm Workers in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.” Master thesis, University of British Columbia.

Pazzano, J. 2020. “Coronavirus: Canada’s Migrant Farm Workers Face Fatal COVID-19 Outbreaks, Alleged Mistreatment.” Global News (August 28).

Preibisch, K. 2010. “Pick-Your-Own Labor: Migrant Workers and Flexibility in Canadian Agriculture.” The International Migration Review 44 (2): 404–441.

Preibisch, K., & Hennebry, J. 2011. “Temporary Migration, Chronic Effects: The Health of International Migrant Workers in Canada. Canadian Medical Association. Journal 183 (9): 1033–1038.

Rapid Response Service. 2013. “Migrant Farm Workers and Sexual Health.” Ontario HIV Treatment Network.

Rodriguez, S. 2020. “As More Migrant Workers Contract COVID-19, Advocates Urge for System to Change.” CBC News (June 2).

Rodriguez, S. 2021. “Migrant Worker Died During Hotel Quarantine, Advocacy Group Says.” CBC News (June 18).

Taekema, D. 2021. “Haldimand-Norfolk Reports 2 More COVID-19 Deaths, Including Temporary Farm Worker.” CBC News (May 20).

United Food and Commercial Workers, and Agricultural Workers Alliance. 2020. “The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, 2020, Special Report: Marking Three Decades of Advocacy on Behalf of Canada’s Most Exploited Workforce.” United Food and Commercial Workers and Agricultural Workers Alliance.

Vosko, L. 2018. “Legal but Deportable: Institutionalized Deportability and the Limits of Collective Bargaining Among Participants in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.” ILR Review 71 (4): 882–907.

  1. Rapid Response Service 2013.
  2. Government of Canada 2019.
  3. United Food and Commercial Workers, and Agricultural Workers Alliance 2020.
  4. United Food and Commercial Workers, and Agricultural Workers Alliance 2020, 22.
  5. Mojtehedzadeh 2020, para. 2.
  6. Mysyk et. al. 2009; Basok et. al. 2014; Cohen & Caxaj 2019.
  7. Government of Canada 2019.
  8. Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group 2020.
  9. Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group 2020, 3.
  10. Cole 2020.
  11. Cole 2020, 4.
  12. Baobeid 2020, para. 4.
  13. Pazzano 2020, para. 7.
  14. Baobeid 2020, para. 4.
  15. Grant & Bailey 2021.
  16. Rodriguez 2021.
  17. Taekema 2021.
  18. Rodriguez 2020, para. 3.
  19. Paz Ramirez 2013; Cohen & Caxaj 2019.
  20. Mysyk et. al. 2009; Nakache & Kinoshita 2010; Paz Ramirez 2013; Basok et. al. 2014; Vosko 2018; Cohen & Caxaj 2019.
  21. Justicia for Migrant Workers n.d.; McLaughlin et. al. 2017; Preibisch & Hennebry 2011.
  22. Preibisch 2010, 432.


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Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Copyright © 2022 by Courtney Jane Clause is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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