Lionel Campbell says it all started with a pain in his chest. The 28-year-old, who came to Canada from Jamaica as a temporary worker in 2008, had been planting, picking and spraying cucumbers at a Southwestern Ontario greenhouse for nearly two years.
Sometimes, the chemicals he sprayed burned his nostrils. Sometimes, they burned his eyes. Sometimes, the spray was so thick, he could taste it.
What those chemicals were, he doesn't know. Nor did his employer provide gear, such as masks and work boots, to protect workers from exposure. "We ask, and they don't give it to us," he says. "They say they don't have any."
Mr. Campbell says he can't be sure, but he believes that whatever he was spraying might have caused the mysterious illness that's been plaguing him since he was admitted to hospital in Leamington, Ont., in July, 2010, with chest pain and a build-up of fluid around his lungs. Even after he was treated and discharged, his condition worsened. "I started to vomit and I got weak," he said, adding he also began getting nose bleeds.
Eventually, the sickness forced Mr. Campbell to return to Jamaica, where he remains unable to work and out of money. Speaking by phone from Jamaica, he says he has been in and out of hospital over the past few weeks.
These days, Canadians are more interested than ever about where their food comes from and how it's produced. Due to concerns about the safety and environmental impact of imported food, many are choosing to buy Canadian-grown produce. Yet among consumers, one facet of eating locally and ethically has been relatively overlooked: the conditions of farm workers in our own backyard.
With decisions to be made over whether to buy food that's organic, natural, traceable and produced within 100 miles, adding yet another dimension to the politics of grocery shopping could be enough to drive consumers batty. Nevertheless, the treatment of agricultural workers is worthy of attention, says Derek Johnstone, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
"People seem to have a lot of sympathy for the environment – which they should – but when it comes to the people who are working in these industries, the issue doesn't seem as pressing, which kind of concerns us," Mr. Johnstone says.
"Labour has really been neglected from the local foods movement," adds associate professor Kerry Preibisch of the University of Guelph, who co-wrote a research paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2011 on the living and working situations of migrant farm workers in Canada. "Local does not mean ethical."
The deaths of 10 poultry-farm workers in a van crash outside Stratford, Ont., last week has directed some attention to the lives of the individuals who toil on domestic farms. While police said the tragedy was due to "driver error," it's just the latest incident to call the health and safety of farm labourers into question.
Reports of cramped living conditions, long hours of labour for little pay and work-related health problems, such as persistent back pain, heat exhaustion and pesticide exposure, are numerous.
Temporary migrant workers are considered the most vulnerable, as they are often unwilling to report labour violations and may accept unsafe work for fear of being returned to their home countries. There are federal and provincial regulations to protect workers, but labour advocates say there's a lack of uniform standards and a need for greater inspection and enforcement. Dr. Preibisch notes that exploitation of migrant workers affects the rest of the agricultural labour force as well, with different nationalities pitted against one another.
"A grower or a supervisor may say to Canadian workers, 'If you don't meet the productivity quota that I'm setting, we're going to bring in Mexican workers next year,' " she says.
Dr. Preibisch says most research indicates that farm size doesn't necessarily determine how well workers are treated. Exploitation may occur on small farms too, since treatment depends on the individual employer.
Eloid Drummond, 39, of Jamaica, says his own employer "was not great" at the London, Ont.-area vegetable greenhouse where he tended sweet peppers, until he was injured in a non-work-related incident in 2011.
"Whenever [anything]happens to any one of us, they always told us that there are a lot of Jamaicans [available]to come if one goes home, so they don't care," Mr. Drummond said in an interview this past summer.
Mr. Drummond, who had been coming to Ontario to work for eight months at a time for the past six years, shared a bunkhouse with 29 co-workers – 15 beds on one side of the room, 15 on the other. He worked up to 15 hours a day, often seven days a week, and was paid $10.25 per hour with no overtime. He and his fellow workers were exposed to unknown chemical sprays in the greenhouse, and their skin sometimes broke out in spots.
"If things, they go wrong, we don't like it, we're afraid to complain," he said, noting employment opportunities in Jamaica are scarce. "If I didn't come here, I wouldn't be surviving that good. Back home, things is not bright."
For years, activists, labour groups, government officials and farmers have been grappling with the issue of workers' rights and safety in the legal and political arenas.
But in the consumer-led movement for ethical food production? "I think it's convenient not to think about it," says Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business, who has studied farm labour in Canada.
Many people employed in agriculture are immigrants or migrant workers and not often able to advocate for their positions, he says. Moreover, it may be difficult for consumers to determine what action to take.
"For a lot of these products, what's the alternative?" Dr. Thompson says. Some berry pickers in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, for instance, may face unfair labour practices, he says. "But what are [working conditions]like in California? They're no better off there. What's the choice?"
Tips for ethical eating
Part of the solution is knowing about the issue. "Start by asking about what were the conditions? Who produces our fruits and vegetables?" says Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the Toronto-based activist group Justicia for Migrant Workers.
You can also volunteer for organizations that work closely with farm workers, or get to know agricultural labourers in your community. Through such interaction, "it becomes very apparent … the growers who are treating their workers ethically and the growers who aren't," says sociologist Kerry Preibisch of the University of Guelph.
Would you be willing to pay more? University of B.C. professor emeritus Mark Thompson says he once suggested that the B.C. agricultural industry follow the lead of the Canadian diamond industry, whose products are offered as an alternative to so-called "blood diamonds."