In an increasingly urbanized society, most consumers live detached from the story of their food source—where their food comes from and who produced it. So, a group of migrant workers is forcing people to pay attention, with a public activism campaign in the form of unassuming QR codes.
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has tagged tables in hundreds of restaurants in Ottawa, Toronto and surrounding areas with large political offices with the codes. The codes appear to be menus; but upon first scan, they instead showcase the exploitative working conditions faced by many foreign farm workers.
The “To-Die-For Sweet Potato Fries” item, for example, tells the tale of a potato harvester from Jamaica named Garvin Yapp who was killed in a farming accident in southern Ontario last summer. The “Bitter Strawberry Tart” explains the 18-hour days some workers spend harvesting strawberries on their hands and knees—most of the time under the hot summer sun. Those who come in contact with these secret menus are also directed to a petition that calls on the Canadian government to provide better labor conditions for migrant workers and to grant them permanent resident status.
Robert, a greenhouse worker from Jamaica who has been in Canada for the past seven years with temporary resident status, is no stranger to such conditions. He tells Modern Farmer he hasn’t had a day off since the pandemic began in 2020. He came to work on Canadian farms in hopes of building a better life for himself.
“The moment I got off the plane, it didn’t take long to realize all of our rights were taken, our rights have been forgotten,” he says. “We do what [the employer] wants us to do. We can’t say no because the moment we stand up to say no… I will be told that I can go home, back to where I came from.”
Robert has seen cases where injured workers were prevented from going to the hospital because businesses were worried about the visit raising the price of their insurance. He’s spent long days with fellow workers in unventilated greenhouses, where the air is thick and pesticide-ridden.
“I had problems breathing. I had coworkers with constant headaches. Sometimes, you have people throwing up, blood coming out from their nostrils,” Robert recalls.
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has documented these issues and other examples where farmworkers say their employers subjected them to crowded, substandard housing, long hours and unsafe working conditions that threaten their health. And those who want to raise concerns, like Robert indicated, fear they will be deported or barred from coming back into the country. Canadian studies have also illustrated the bleak reality of these conditions where, between January 2020 and June 2021, nine migrant agricultural workers died in Ontario.
Workers like Robert believe permanent residency status will help them better assert their rights, grant them access to social services such as health care without the permission of their employer and allow many workers to reunite with their families in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau promised a change in status for all temporary foreign workers in his 2021 immigration policy priorities.
Canada brings in more than 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers each year, under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which allows Canadian employers to hire temporary migrant workers from Mexico and 11 countries in the Caribbean.
As politicians headed back to the House of Commons in Ottawa at the end of January, organizer Luisa Ortiz-Garza says it was the perfect opportunity to launch the campaign and get attention from both civilians and politicians.
“We thought, what better way of making people part of our fight than showing them what it takes for the food to reach their tables while they’re at the table—the hidden cost,” she says. “What we are really saying is that our workers need equal rights and deserve to live a dignified life with their families.”
Ortiz-Garza says the response to the campaign has been overwhelming. The group has garnered thousands of signatures since the initiative began in late January. She notes, however, that momentum is building and QR stickers will eventually be plastered inside the country’s east and west coast provinces over the next few weeks. The organization says they will continue to campaign until the Canadian government fulfills its promise. It is planning to hold an event this weekend and another one in late March, centering around the secret menu initiative and its request for permanent residency. Ortiz-Garza says details would be published on the organization’s website in the near future.
As for Robert, regardless of how successful the campaign ends up being, he says he will continue to find ways to speak up and speak out.
“I’m never going to be tired of telling my story, until the world knows what migrant workers are faced with,” he says. “If people are enjoying a cucumber or a pepper and it comes from Canada, I am one of the persons who helped to have that get to their table. I hope at least they think about the people on the ground who make this happen.”