Farmers are worried that there will be a shortage of the seasonal workers they employ -- and depend on -- at harvest time. Farmers normally apply for workers through Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
There are many problems with the TFW system, including a lack of oversight that opens the door for all kinds of abuses. But leaving that aside, right now a great many Canadians suddenly find themselves unemployed, as their employers have shut down or are severely limiting services during the public health crisis.
This leads me to an inescapable question. Couldn't local workers pick crops?
They would need protective equipment, of course. And their hiring and any training would have to conform to health protocols. But so would hiring temporary foreign workers. Surely Canada is not going to bring in busloads of migrant workers from South and Central America without testing and quarantine?
The TFW Program is supposed to be a way for employers to fill positions when no Canadians are available for hire. Have farmers reached out to Canadian municipalities to (try to) recruit Canadians to pick their produce? I've seen no mention of this anywhere.
If the answer to the question, "Why not hire locally?" is "Where would we find people? How would we transport them?" and similar logistical issues, those can be sorted out with creativity and flexibility.
But if the answer to that question is "Because working conditions are so bad, no Canadian would want the job," then we have an ideal opportunity. Improve working conditions, make picking crops a decent job, and hire locally. Or at least try to hire locally first.
Access to nutritious, local fruits and vegetables is a basic element of our health and well-being. The act of picking crops lies at the very foundation of our ability to feed ourselves and stay healthy. Therefore, picking crops is a very important job.
Picking crops is difficult, grueling, back-breaking work -- work that must be done both efficiently and quickly. Therefore, the people who do it deserve to be decently compensated.
Picking crops must be done by humans. There is no digital or mechanical substitute. And all humans deserve decent working conditions.
That's what we believe in Canada, right?
Make picking crops a decent job and you just might find Canadians applying. That will decrease the chances of bringing coronavirus across the border, alleviate the need to test and quarantine temporary workers -- and it will right a longstanding injustice at the same time.
If you're unfamiliar with the issues faced by migrant farm workers, I highly recommend the movies, "Harvest of Shame" (1960), "Immokalee USA" (2009) and "Food Inc." (2008). A list of movies on the topic is here, compiled by Student Action with Farmworkers.
You might also visit the website of the United Farm Workers, one of the great movements of our time.*
And of course, there is the great American novel, and my most cherished book of all time, The Grapes of Wrath. If you haven't read it, or read it long ago, you might use some of your social distancing time to check it out. It's as relevant today as it ever was, and it's available for free download in either pdf or audiobook form.
* I have a soft spot for the UFW. They are one year younger than me, and their organizing and issues are part of my earliest political consciousness. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta are two of my great heroes.