MIGRANT FARMING NARWHAL 202108

Humanizing the workforce: how we went behind the scenes to tell the story of the migrants growing Canada’s produce

Anonymous tips, access to information requests, trips to crowded bunkhouses: these are just some of the ways reporter Hilary Beaumont and photographer Christopher Katsarov Luna teamed up to tell an intimate and immersive story about the unique vulnerability of Ontario’s migrant agricultural workforce amid a raging global pandemic

When the pandemic first hit, photojournalist Christopher Katsarov Luna’s mind immediately turned to the farming town of Leamington, Ont. He’d spent nearly a decade travelling to the community to document the experiences of the seasonal migrant workers who form the backbone of Canada’s agricultural industry.

Chris was worried the cramped living quarters would only make a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, he was right.

Cramped dorms, with 24 to a room. A COVID-19 outbreak. The misuse of limestone powder — used to stop pests from destroying tomatoes — that burned workers’ eyes, lungs and skin. And that’s just at Lakeside Produce, one of several Leamington greenhouses.

Interviews with more than 30 migrant workers, a visit to a bunkhouse and analysis of complaint data and inspection reports reveal a system that repeatedly fails to keep workers safe — a circumstance compounded by the global pandemic. 

This stunning piece of investigative journalism, by Chris and reporter Hilary Beaumont, was more than a year in the making. We’re grateful we were able to publish it in The Narwhal thanks to the thousands of readers who support us by donating whatever they can afford. Each and every contribution helps ensure we are able to say yes to pitches from journalists like Hilary and Chris.

The glimpse inside the working conditions is truly rare, and it includes 360 imagery that comes as close as I’ve ever seen to offering a complete picture of the conditions faced by the people growing Canada’s fruits and vegetables.

Below, Chris and Hilary share insights into how the story came together and why it’s so important we stop reducing migrant workers to statistics.

How did this story about Ontario’s migrant farmworkers land on your radar?

Chris: I’ve been travelling to Leamington and greenhouses economies since 2012, documenting the experiences of migrant workers.

The challenge with reporting on this community is that it’s deeply vulnerable to employer reprisal. And many of these workers’ families depend on the income that these workers generate, so there’s a great deal of hesitancy to go on the record, let alone on camera.

As soon as the pandemic hit I knew it was going to be a problem in bunkhouses where migrant workers live. I knew from working with Hilary on a couple other projects that she would do the story justice and report responsibly.  

This is a hard story to report on but she’s one of the hardest working journalists that I know and I was hoping that together we could report on this story in a humanizing but impactful way. And, I was right.

A migrant farmworker bunkhouse.
Bunkbeds used by migrant workers in the housing facility at Cervini Farms. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Was there one source that really got the ball rolling?

Hilary: Starting in spring 2020, both of us reached out to dozens of workers at many different companies before we finally heard back from people. Workers didn’t want to talk because they feared losing their contracts and visas. After phone calls, WhatsApp conversations and trips to visit workers in Leamington, people were willing to talk to us anonymously, but it wasn’t until July 2021 that we found workers willing to go on the record with specific workplace allegations. Shawn Cotter had left Lakeside on an open work permit, which meant he couldn’t be deported, and other workers at Lakeside were willing to talk anonymously.

I also filed an access to information request for federal inspection reports in July 2020 that didn’t come back until August 2021, because Canada’s access to information system is broken, and COVID makes every system worse.

A photo of former Lakeside Produce farmworker Shawn Cotter.
Shawn Cotter in Kitchener, Ont. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

What did it mean to be able to visit an Ontario farm employing migrant workers?

Hilary: Throughout the pandemic, every time I went to the grocery store, I would check the labels on the vegetables to see where they were produced, but it was nearly impossible to know who picked them and what the working conditions were like. Once we were inside the bunkhouse, it felt like I was looking through a portal to the other end of the supply chain. 

How did you go about trying to capture the environment there? The 360 imagery, for example, really helps show the nature of the living conditions.

Chris: There were two goals with the visual reporting: to effectively communicate the cramped, claustrophobic setting and to humanize the workforce in the agriculture industry. 

I’m a huge follower of immersive documentary and design. I’ve seen some examples of effective use of 360, and many examples of failed use cases. It was clear to me that 360 visuals would be a powerful way to communicate the cramped congregate living setting, especially in the bedrooms. The challenge was that the equipment is bulky and that I had to move very fast so as not to reveal any identities. But I think it was effective. 

Journalism rarely gets a look into migrant workers’ lives, there is an economic reductivism that happens in discourse and policy. Migrant workers are referred to in the aggregate, in quantitative terms and as statistics. We never hear or see their experiences as emotional, social or political. It’s always reduced to economics. 

Rarely if ever do we get a glimpse in the totality of a migrant worker’s life. Rarely are we presented with a representation of their lives here in Canada as social, emotional and political. I wanted to offer a different view. I loosely drew on the approach by late, famed photojournalist Tim Hetherington and his body of work “Sleeping Soldiers.” In that work, Hetherington was able to communicate a side of U.S. soldiers that had previously been neglected. He was able to humanize and bring a dimension of emotional vulnerability by photographing young male soldiers while sleeping.

In my journalism, I’ve been working to document migrant workers’ lives by visually connecting a condition that everyone shares — sleeping. But unlike U.S. soldiers, migrant workers in this context need their identities protected, which presents additional challenges. A very careful way around that was to photograph feet and arms hanging from the bunks, and no faces. 

Hilary: I knew I could trust Chris with the photos and VR, so my job was to gather the non-visual information — the sounds, smells and quotes from workers in the bunkhouse. I tried not to over-describe the bunkhouse because the images do a lot of the heavy lifting.

A migrant farmworker in their bunk.
A foot peeks out from a worker’s bunk at a farm in Leamington. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Is there anything you’re watching for going forward, from a regulatory standpoint?

Chris: Employment and Social Development Canada just released findings from its consultations on migrant workers, and it has noted several recommendations to worker accommodations. Importantly it notes suggestions of “phasing-in the elimination of bunkbeds” and a “maximum of four workers per room.”

Hilary: If these recommendations are implemented, it would mean the Lakeside bunkhouse we saw would no longer be in compliance with federal rules. The Lakeside bunkhouse had eight people in each room, while these recommendations would allow up to four workers per room.

Chris: I’ll be watching for an extension of the open work permit system to all migrant workers. Ultimately, as long as workers visas are fixed to an individual employer contract, workers will be hesitant to report on workplace health and safety violations, human rights violations or organize, for fear of being deported. Having an open system would be an extension of the most basic labour right to this critical workforce and probably the singular most impactful change that can be made to ensure that migrant workers are represented, heard and seen.

We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?
We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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