BY COURTNEY DENARD
Each year, over 40,000 migrant workers come to Canada legally to work on farms. Now, a new initiative that’s putting the workers front and centre is shining a spotlight on their stories.
More than a Migrant Worker is a website and media campaign supported by the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association in partnership with several commodity groups.
Alison Robertson, executive director, OFVGA, said the idea for the campaign was sparked in the winter of 2021 as grow-ers and industry representatives grew increasingly frustrated with misinformation being written in the media and shared online.
“The seasonal agricultural worker program has been around for more than 50 years and we are proud of it, workers are proud of it and government is proud of it,” Robertson said. But that’s not the message that was getting across.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became even more important to get the right messaging out to the public.
With global borders closing over night, everyone attached to the program found themselves in unprecedented territory.
And for the first time in five decades, it was uncertain if workers would even be allowed into the country.
It was at this time, Robertson said, that the industry groups rallied to bring the workers to
Ontario and to offer a platform for them to tell their stories.
Lilian Schaer, agricultural communicator and owner of Agri-Food Project Services Ltd., has been working on the More than a Migrant Worker campaign since its onset.
She said the initiative is unique in that it’s the first time the workers are front and centre.
“Communications campaigns run in the past have always been from the point of view of the grower, but this campaign focuses on the workers’ stories,” Schaer said.
As part of its contribution, partnering organization Farm and Food Care Ontario was in charge of gathering the workers’ stories.
The organization put a callout to farmers and migrant workers and interviews were lined up.
Translators were used when needed during the interviewing process to ensure accuracy and from these meetings, print, photography and video content were collected.
Schaer said it was important that the stories be from the authentic voice of the workers. Every story that was written was read and proofed by each worker that was involved.
“We don’t publish anything before the worker approves it,” Schaer said.
Some of the stories that were collected were amazing, Robertson added.
One of the workers featured in an article run in the National Post was Jorge Mario Lopez.
Lopez is a husband and father of five from Guatemala. His job in Canada is in a pepper greenhouse at Nature Fresh Farms in Leamington.
“For our family, the main reason for me to come here was because my son, now age 15, had been born with special needs. It was a very big expense and I could no longer cover the expenses for his medical exams and needs,” Lopez said in the piece.
Lopez’s participation in the migrant worker program ensures his son’s ongoing medical care and a better life for the entire family, the article writes.
Julio Polanco, another worker featured in the National Post piece, said his job in Canada has meant that his wife could go to school and become a nurse. It also allowed his daughter to receive a good
Also from Guatemala, Polanco was quoted saying, “In a short time, you can accomplish a lot of things, and then you think that it is worth the sacrifice to leave the family for a bit and that they will have a better future.”
Lopez and Polanco are just two stories from the 40,000 migrant workers that work on Canadian farms each year.
The More than a Migrant Worker website and social media channels, share many more.
When it comes to how the public has responded to the campaign, Schaer said the metrics are starting to come in and so far there’s been positive growth.
The average person spent about one minute on the first article run in the National Post in November 2021. This past July, that same number had increased to four minutes of reading the article and clicking on the associated advertisement.
“People are interested and I think what makes them interested is that it’s the workers telling their stories,” Schaer said.
Looking into the future, Robertson said the campaign would continue to grow and evolve over time.
There are already thoughts about billboards along the QEW or close to the food terminal in Toronto, and perhaps wraps on trucks.
“It’s not just a feel-good campaign. It’s making sure this program stays whole. I think it will be going for a long time,” Robertson said.
For more information about More than a Migrant Worker,check out morethanamigrantworker.ca or @MtaMigrantWrkr on social media.