Local Cuisine & Transnational Labour
The migrant agricultural workers behind food production in a gastronomic setting are invisible
Kristin Lozanski & Kayla Baumgartner
Culinary Tourism in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), Canada, is a small tourist town in an agriculturally-lush region of Ontario. The primary crops grown here are tender fruits and grapes.
The well-manicured orchards and wineries create an idyllic rural landscape for tourists. NOTL was named the “Prettiest Town in Canada” in 1996, and 25 years later it continues to boast of this designation. The town and the wineries actively curate a picturesque experience for tourists.
Local crops are foundational to NOTL’s sizeable farm-to-table tourism industry and wine production. The use of local produce informs the claim that NOTL is the “Culinary Capital of Canada” (Niagara-on-the-Lake Tourism, 2020). Restaurants serve locally grown food and wine to create a seemingly idyllic and ethical dining experience:
“Whether it’s freshly picked veggies from [our head chef’s] own kitchen garden, eggs from our favourite local farmers, or just-butchered beef that’s grazed in Niagara pastures, each plate that leaves the kitchen celebrates the bounty of our community, our province and our country.” (Peller Estates, 2022)
While local crops are spotlighted and venerated in NOTL, the migrant agricultural workers who tend these crops are not. The disconnect is especially notable considering the essential role these workers play. They provide labour for greenhouses, nurseries, and fruit and vegetable farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake and across Canada.
The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program
Each year, tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers travel to farms and greenhouses across Canada. Several thousand arrive in NOTL. The horticultural sector here relies upon this labour because Canadians are unwilling to do the work. Agricultural work involves long hours of manual labour in difficult climactic conditions for relatively low pay.
Many migrant agricultural workers come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). The Canadian government runs this program in partnership with governments of sending countries. These include Mexico and English-speaking Caribbean nations.
The program allows workers to come to Canada for up to eight months each year on a work visa that is tied to a single employer. This means that workers cannot stay in Canada without working for the person or company who hired them. They cannot stop working or work for another employer without permission.
Workers are left in an insecure position in other ways as well. They rely upon being “named” (i.e. called back by name) by their employer each year. Those who are not called back often have difficulty rejoining the program.
The SAWP contract allows employers to dismiss workers for ambiguous reasons, including “non-compliance.” There is no way to appeal an employer’s decision.
The workers’ living and working conditions are precarious and unsafe. Employers provide accommodation as part of SAWP. Although it requires an inspection, this housing is often crowded and substandard.
The program strips workers of much of their autonomy. Despite this, many ‘choose’ to work in Canada because they have few options for employment in their home countries. With the income they make abroad, they are able to send remittances in foreign currency and to ship barrels and crates of food and goods back to their families and communities.
Workers’ earnings most often go towards building a house, their children’s schooling, and/or medical expenses. In total, these remittances make important contributions to their local and national economies.
Local Tourism, Global Labour
In NOTL, ‘local’ food depends upon the asymmetries of global labour and global exchanges. This idea, however, is incompatible with the picture presented to tourists. NOTL is curated as a rural space that is outside of modernity.
The descriptor “quaint” — repeatedly used to describe NOTL — is inconsistent with transnational capitalism. Transnational capitalism is evident in the bodies of the Brown and Black transnational workers.
Migrant agricultural workers are present in the landscape of NOTL. They are present in fields, at grocery stores, and riding their bicycles.
Workers’ visibility also manifests via their living conditions. As tourists travel to orchards and vineyards, they pass by the bunkhouses where workers live. These houses are commonly cluttered with bicycles, clothing lines, and informal outdoor seating.
Yet most tourists (and Canadians) claim not to know about the presence of migrant agriculture workers. Very few have any understanding of their living and working conditions.
The operation of transnational capitalism intrudes on the idyllic rural landscape. The presence of transnational workers contradicts the production of local food. Their lamentable living and working conditions disrupts the pleasures of tourism in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Much of the touristic experience in NOTL involves seeing the landscape of orchards and vineyard. Yet it simultaneously involves not seeing the workers and their traces in the landscape.
This article is based on:
- Peller Estates. 2021. The Winery Restaurant. https://www.peller.com/winery-restaurant.html access 27 May 2021.
- Niagara-on-the-Lake Tourism. 2020. Niagara-on-the-Lake Dining. https://www.niagaraonthelake.com/restaurants retrieved 27 May 2021
- Caribbean Employment Contract. 2021. Retrieved 27 May 2021 via F.A.R.M.S. https://farmsontario.ca/forms/
About the Authors
Kristin Lozanski is an Associate Professor of Sociology at King’s University College at Western University in London, Canada with expertise in globalization, gender, and racialization. Her research interrogates migrant agricultural labour, transnational surrogacy, and birth tourism as disparate modes of transnational mobility to/from Canada, which overlap with reproduction, belonging, and citizenship.
Kayla Baumgartner is a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University. Her research interests include migration, gender, sexuality, and the social construction of space. She is particularly interested in how LGBT migrants “queer” the migration process itself and how they adapt to new environments. Kayla is currently finalizing her PhD dissertation, which looks at spaces of belonging for lesbian migrant women in urban South Africa.
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