Reporting on migrant workers and the dark side of Canada’s agriculture industry during COVID-19

Reporter Jake Edmiston shares his process on reporting on the roots of Canadian food.

A ‘porch’trait of Jake Edmiston at his Toronto home, where he has been isolating and reporting from during the pandemic. Photographed by Cheska Lim. 

The horrific conditions that migrant agriculture workers experience rarely appeared in mainstream media before the pandemic.

Today, following various workplace outbreaks and the death of two Mexican workers, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, on Canadian farms, the systematic problems are being exposed and reporters are covering these stories as hundreds more are falling ill.

Normally, reporters would visit the farms in person, which allows for a deeper understanding of the working conditions. When a journalist is there in person, they can interpret the emotion and body language of the people they interview, as well as the mood of the scene. Due to lockdown restrictions, journalists like Jake Edmiston from the Financial Post are finding different ways to tell these story accurately while following restrictions.

“It takes a lot longer on the phone, and you have to ask weirder question to tease out details,” explained Edmiston. 

Edmiston’s home office where he covers Canada’s pressing stories on the food and agriculture beat during the pandemic.

Migrant agriculture employees are essential for putting food on Canadian tables every day. It is common for migrant labours to work long days, live in crammed bunkhouses with little privacy and no heat or proper ventilation. The average wage for Canada’s agricultural workers is $19.82, however, according to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), some are working 18 hour days at an underwhelming rate of $5 an hour.

On June 8, MWAC released a report sharing the complaints that over a thousand migrant workers filed with the organization. The report shares the stories of abuse, racism, stolen wages and unethical treatment during the pandemic. These accusations were disregarded by federal and provincial authorities.

There has been an immeasurable amount of times that the leaders of MWAC have tried to speak up about fear and abuse on the farms, however, they have mostly gone ignored.

Enter the novel coronavirus. A highly contagious disease that spreads easily in indoor or congested areas. The virus is shining a light on a dark corner of Canada’s agricultural sector.

“COVID has exposed what was there before. We’re learning that the living conditions for some of these workers are appalling,” said Edmiston. 

During the pandemic, minimal efforts have been made to ensure healthcare to migrant workers. The MWAC report says “that at the time of writing [June 6], at least 20 Spanish-speaking workers and 92 Jamaican workers who arrived in Ontario on or before April 1 have still not received their health cards.”

Mexico has now put a pause on sending foreign labourers to work on Canadian farms. In turn, Canada’s food supply may be in danger. There is a huge labour shortage on Canadian farms, and that slack is picked up by workers coming in from abroad.

“In a vacuum, what they’re doing is showing the Canadian public where our food comes from and the cracks in the system. There are a lot of weaknesses in how we get food into the grocery stores. And a lot of it is people working very hard for wages and working jobs Canadians won’t do themselves.”

-Jake Edmiston

Although Mexico has put a pause on sending in new workers, the spread of COVID-19 amongst migrant workers on Canadian soil continues to rise. According to MWAC, 56,850 agriculture workers came to Canada in 2019 – an increase of 36.7% from 2017.

The situation is now receiving broad media coverage. CBC News Front Burner Podcast recently released an episode called ‘Covert calls for help – a hotline for migrant workers’ that reveals what is happening on farms across the country. Once on-site visits are granted, journalists like Edmiston and CBC Front Burner podcast will have a lot of ground to cover.

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Posted: Jul 3 2020 8:37 pm
Filed under: Living Room Newsroom News