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Tomorrow We're All Going to the Harvest

Tomorrow We're All Going to the Harvest
Temporary Foreign Worker Programs and Neoliberal Political Economy

This exceptional study examines the experience of Mexican workers in the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), widely considered a model program by the World Bank and other international institutions despite the significant violations of labor and human rights inherent in the terms of employment.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2013
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299 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 photos, 2 maps, 5 figures, 6 tables |

From its inception in 1966, the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) has grown to employ approximately 20,000 workers annually, the majority from Mexico. The program has been hailed as a model that alleviates human rights concerns because, under contract, SAWP workers travel legally, receive health benefits, contribute to pensions, are represented by Canadian consular officials, and rate the program favorably. Tomorrow We’re All Going to the Harvest takes us behind the ideology and examines the daily lives of SAWP workers from Tlaxcala, Mexico (one of the leading sending states), observing the great personal and family price paid in order to experience a temporary rise in a standard of living. The book also observes the disparities of a gutted Mexican countryside versus the flourishing agriculture in Canada, where farm labor demand remains high.

Drawn from extensive surveys and nearly two hundred interviews, ethnographic work in Ontario (destination of over 77 percent of migrants in the author’s sample), and quantitative data, this is much more than a case study; it situates the Tlaxcala-Canada exchange within the broader issues of migration, economics, and cultural currents. Bringing to light the historical genesis of “complementary” labor markets and the contradictory positioning of Mexican government representatives, Leigh Binford also explores the language barriers and nonexistent worker networks in Canada, as well as the physical realities of the work itself, making this book a complete portrait of a provocative segment of migrant labor.

  • List of Maps, Figures, and Tables
  • List of Acronyms
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Contract Labor Migration in Theory and Practice
  • Chapter 1: Agricultural Crisis, Migration, and Contract Labor: Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Ontario, Canada
  • Chapter 2: The Dual Process of Constructing Mexican Contract Workers
  • Chapter 3: “Tomorrow We’re All Going to the Harvest”: Case Studies of Contract Labor Migration
  • Chapter 4: Interrogating Racialized Global Labor Supply: Caribbean and Mexican Workers in Canada’s SAWP (by Kerry Preibisch and Leigh Binford)
  • Chapter 5: The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and Mexican Development
  • Chapter 6: The Political Economy of Contract Labor in Neoliberal North America: Cheap Labor and Organized Labor
  • Chapter 7: Globalization and Temporary Migrants: Post-National Citizens, Realpolitik, and Disposable Labor Power
  • Appendix: The SAWP: Saving the Family Farm or Feeding Corporate Enterprise?
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Leigh Binford is Chair of the Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work Department of the College of Staten Island, CUNY. He is the author of The El Mozote Massacre: Anthropology and Human Rights, coedited Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Community, and the Nation-State in Twentieth-Century El Salvador and Zapotec Struggles, and coauthored Obliging Need: Rural Petty Industry in Mexican Capitalism.


Contract Labor Migration in Theory and Practice

Over twenty years ago Domingo Rodríguez, a young Mexican from the state of Tlaxcala and a student at the public Autonomous University of Tlaxcala, succeeded in gaining entrance to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Since 1974, this program had been sending Mexican peasants and day laborers to rural areas of Ontario (and later, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba) where they worked long hours on farms producing fruits, vegetables, and similar crops both for domestic sale and exportation. Encouraged by Bertoldo Sánchez Muñoz, his Social Work thesis advisor, Rodríguez religiously logged his daily experiences, even providing a precise accounting of the bi-weekly paychecks, itemizing the amounts deducted for transportation, unemployment insurance, pension fund, and income tax. During two summers in Canada, he recorded selected aspects of his daily work activities, perceptions of his employers (he was transferred to a different employer the second season), relationships among workmates, and living and working conditions. Although perfunctory—doubtless due to the conditions under which the notes were compiled (often late at night following an exhausting day in the fields)—and usually rather dry, Rodríguez’s thesis, “Experiencias de un migrante: Relatos etnográficos”, stands as the only first-person ethnographic account of contract labor experience in Canada and probably one of the few documents of its kind in the Americas.

This book analyzes critically the experiences of Rodríguez and others like him in its consideration of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program as an example of Temporary Foreign Worker Programs. According to Cindy Hahamovich , such programs first developed in the late nineteenth century and have persisted with ebbs and flows down to the present. They constituted intermediate state responses to contradictory economic and political pressures: employer demands for cheap labor on the one hand, and citizen fears of invasions by foreign Others on the other. Hahamovich explains:

Temporary labor schemes were . . . state-brokered compromises designed to maintain high levels of migration while placating anti-immigrant movements. They offered employers foreign workers who could still be bound like indentured servants but who could also be disciplined by the threat of deportation. They placated trade unionists who feared foreign competition by promising to restrict guestworkers to the most onerous work and to expel them during economic downturns. And they assuaged nativists by isolating guestworkers from the general population. Finally, states got development aid from poor countries in the form of ready workers, without the responsibility of having to integrate those workers or pay for their welfare. The perfect immigrant was born.

As Hahamovich makes clear, the “perfect immigrant” could be drawn in and sent away according to the needs of domestic capitalists; neither employers nor the State assumed responsibility for the workers’ prior formation or social reproduction; and contract workers could neither aspire to citizenship nor enjoy most of the rights that accrued to citizens, whether “natural” or naturalized. In “inviting” guest workers, nation states sought to import laborers, producers of surplus value, without importing real people with families and needs and expectations that extended beyond the field, the factory, or the construction site.

However subject to external control, the “perfect immigrant” was and is not a slave, even when the living and working conditions of Temporary Foreign Workers are sufficiently rudimentary to call up memories of slave labor: Many employers exercise almost unlimited control, demanding long hours of fast-paced work in the grueling sun and/or installing workers in crowded dormitories, wooden shacks with leaky roofs and cracked walls, or rundown trailers. But in contrast to slaves, they work on contract, receive cash payment in exchange for their services, and are free to leave at any time. Many circulate back and forth repeatedly and over many years between the “here” of their native community/country and the “there” of the work site. Indeed, a small percentage of Mexican participants in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have spent more time over the last twenty years working and living on Canadian farms than they have in rural Tlaxcala, Puebla, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, or whatever state they originate from.

Circulation between source and destination countries also spells one of the major differences, for better and worse, between Temporary Foreign Workers and indentured laborers. Both tend to be “tied” to a particular employer for the duration of the contract, but when that contract terminates, indentured laborers generally have the right to remain in country and move about the labor market, while “guestworkers were, by definition, expected to leave”. Indenture served as a kind of brutal initiation for the recruitment of a permanent labor force that eventually would be granted most of the rights and protections of the citizen worker. Not so for the participants in Temporary Foreign Worker Programs; however permanent the programs became, they were created to resolve supposedly transitory labor shortages in specific sectors of the economy.

The first TFWPs developed in Prussia and South Africa during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Their popularity grew during World War I, when France, the United States, and other countries recruited large labor forces in order to maximize wartime production. For instance, the first Mexican Braceros arrived in the United States during World War I, pioneers of a program, or series of programs really, that with highs and lows endured through 1964. Large TFWPs also developed in postwar England, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Sweden, where, according to Castles, they played important roles in postwar capital accumulation during three decades of robust growth and low unemployment between 1945 and 1974. Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) became less necessary during and after the succeeding period of economic downturn and reduced industrial profits, which led to the global dispersion of intensive production processes to low-wage countries, made possible by revolutionary innovations in communications, transportation, and control techniques—features of what has generally come to be known as the New International Division of Labor. Six European countries canceled their TFWPs around the time of the 1973 oil crisis. Thirteen years later, Castles wrote what he referred to as an “obituary” for those programs.

Dialectically intertwined processes of “distortion” and “dependence,” the first revolving around the interests of employers and the second around the interests of workers, combined to sink most postwar TFWPs. Labor market “distortion” refers to a process whereby employers’ access to a foreign labor force recruited to meet an emergency situation evolves into permanent access. That is, employers in developed capitalist countries become accustomed to economically cheap and politically unorganized foreign workers and create all manner of disaster scenarios to justify a program’s continuation long after the emergency has passed. Foreign workers become transformed from emergency substitutes into the preferred workers. California tomato growers predicted disaster were the Bracero Program to be canceled, as did corporate Florida sugarcane interests, which gained access to Jamaicans through the small British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, created in 1943. But when lawsuits and/or public outcry over abuses spelled the demise of these programs, agriculturalists both in the South and West “miraculously” figured out ways to raise the ratio of constant to viable capital, i.e., to replace humans with machines, whether harvesting delicate tomatoes (California) or muck-grown sugarcane (Florida). Martin and Teitelbaum observed that in 1999, California tomato growers, who had earlier claimed that they could not survive without the Braceros, employed machinery and 5000 workers to harvest 12 million tons of the juicy, red fruit; some thirty-nine years earlier, during the program’s last years, forty-five thousand manual workers harvested 2.2 million tons.

A different, if related, process shaped dependence as viewed from the workers’ perspectives. For instance, many Mexican Braceros either “settled out” when the program terminated or continued migrating cyclically as newly minted undocumented workers. Both groups served as beachheads or “bridges” for the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans that fled toward El Norte in the 1980s and 1990s seeking relief from deteriorating rural economies. Something similar occurred in Europe, where strong European welfare states accorded TFWs more rights than in the United States. Over time the workers struggled to expand those rights even more by sending for their families and settling out despite the lack of legal documents. This “family reunification” stage produced upward pressure on wages and demands on the State for housing, education, health and social amenities, undermining migrants’ utility from both employers’ and bureaucrats’ perspectives and eventually sinking European TFWPs. Foreign worker habituation to the markedly higher incomes and improved services available in the global North, and their struggle to access them long after states terminate TFWPs, have been conceptualized as a form of “dependency.”

The Recrudescence of TFWPs

More than three decades into neoliberal restructuring, concerns with distortion and dependence—or maybe just migration-shaped labor markets—have been put aside or forgotten. Birth rates are generally low in the capitalist North, domestic populations are aging, and the demand for flexible, low-wage labor has been growing apace in construction, meatpacking, horticulture, child care, and the restaurant and hospitality industries, among others. Turning to the underdeveloped (also capitalist) South, broadly speaking, neoliberal market openings ravaged agriculture, small business, and much industry, resulting in escalating rates of unemployment and, especially, underemployment. Regardless of their academic credentials, most new entrants onto job markets in Mexico, El Salvador, and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean confront a limited number of choices: precarious and poorly paid work in the informal sector; criminal activity; or labor migration. Thirty years of “accumulation by dispossession” has forged an apparent “complementarity” between poor countries in the underdeveloped South with unambiguous labor surpluses, on the one hand, and wealthy countries in the overdeveloped North with purported labor deficits. Throw in the decline of the Western welfare state, add a large dose of home-grown xenophobia over the denationalizing impact of permanent migration, spice the mix with a bit of post-9/11 paranoia, stir well, and behold the result: another wave of interest in TFWPs among public officials, employers, and sectors of the public, and this despite the fact that no clear solutions to migrant dependency, labor market distortion, or other problems have been suggested.

In 2001 Martin and Teitelbaum offered a point-by-point refutation of what they called “The Mirage of Mexican Guest Workers.” Although aimed specifically at George W. Bush’s pre-9/11 plan to import up to three hundred thousand guest workers on three-year nonrenewable work visas, and focused specifically on Mexicans, the criticisms are of general relevance. According to the authors, TFWPs undercut wages, discourage the introduction of labor-saving technology, impede worker organization (and the improved wages, benefits, and working conditions that organized struggle makes possible), tend to persist far beyond the “emergency” situation that, real or imagined, often justifies their creation, and sooner or later contribute to the permanent, undocumented migration they were intended to prevent or reduce. Host countries gain hard currency through remittances, but maintaining high levels of return requires continuous export of fresh waves of workers. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, and many regions of Mexico have become labor reserves for U.S. agriculture, services, and light industry at the expense of domestic investment and development. The authors concluded by referring to the programs as “a special subsidy for farmers, meatpackers, and families that hire nannies,” although they also cautioned that if people settle out, the migrants could “become a large obligation financed by all Americans”.

Recently, a series of innovative policy designs have been developed to address the problems that plagued earlier programs. They tend to focus on some combination of conditional “portability” of work visas, wage deferrals, tax reimbursements to migrant workers ineligible for unemployment insurance or social security, a strengthening of penalties for employers who dip into the undocumented labor pool, and beefed-up enforcement of unauthorized migration. Ruhs insists that a new generation of TFWPs, building on the past, can provide “significant benefits for all sides involved, including migrant workers and their countries of origin”. He envisions a win-win-win situation for involved governments, employers, and migrants. Meanwhile, policy makers scour the horizon for successful programs that might inform a new generation of TFWPs.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (henceforth SAWP) is one such program, and this book offers a close, critical discussion and analysis of it based on field work in Mexico and Canada and an extensive reading of the Spanish- and English-language literatures. As of 2011 the SAWP had been in existence for forty-five years, during most of which time it avoided public controversy. Recent criticisms by academics, journalists, activists, and union organizers have not deterred sectors of the Canadian public, government officials, participating employers, and foreign observers from characterizing the SAWP as a “model program”, marked by complementarity (between the needs of participating nations, employers, and workers) and “best practices”. The World Bank opined that among four TFWPs surveyed, the SAWP was best suited to inform TFWP design for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Region. Given this high recommendation from an influential global institution, a close examination of the SAWP would seem to be both merited and necessary. If it turns out that a purportedly “model program” is rife with exploitation and abuse, what might we expect of other TFWPs, real and proposed, that lack its contract guarantees, provisions for vigilance, and internal checks and balances? TFWPs have become an important instrument in the toolkit of northern governments seeking to ensure domestic employers’ access to cheap, Third World labor; secure the borders against real or imagined foreign threats; and cater to xenophobes concerned about imagined social and cultural contamination wrought by the presence in their midst of an undigestible foreign Other.

Canada’s SAWP is a government-to-government contract labor program that annually sends workers from Mexico and a number of predominantly English-speaking Caribbean nations to Canada. The program began in 1966 in Ontario with 266 Jamaican participants but now involves more than twenty-five thousand Mexican and Caribbean workers employed in horticultural and related enterprises in the southern reaches of nine Canadian provinces, stretching from Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island in the east to British Columbia in the west. Source-country governments are charged with recruitment, and criteria vary somewhat between Mexico on the one hand, and Jamaica and other Caribbean suppliers on the other. Mexican officials seek out reliable, family men with children; Jamaican government recruiters judge applicants more on physical strength and durability. In all cases, those accepted into the SAWP receive contracts that vary from six weeks (minimum) to eight months (maximum), working a minimum forty hour work week. Canadian officials and representatives of employer associations meet annually with their labor supply country counterparts in order to evaluate the program and negotiate wages and benefits for the coming year. Workers do not attend these meetings but are represented by government officials.

Canadian employers cover a portion of workers’ round trip air transportation and, on arrival in Canada, contract workers reside without cost in employer-provided housing. Upwards of 70 percent of Mexican and Caribbean contract workers are sent to work on farms in Ontario, Canada’s main supplier of horticultural goods and the focus of this study. There they benefit from enrollment in the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and pay into the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), upon which long-term seasonal workers will be able to draw once they retire. In case of accident or injury, health crisis, family emergency in the home country, or dispute with the employer, workers can seek the assistance of a government agent—“consular officials” in the case of Mexico and “liaison officers” for Caribbean-area nations—working out of the nearest consulate. Most important, SAWP participants enter Canada legally, avoiding the cost, physical danger, uncertainty, and psychological stress routinely experienced by undocumented immigrants to the United States. Many Mexican and Caribbean workers return year after year to the same farm—invited back by employers—and some even gain the trust of Canadian farmers, who allow them to use farm vehicles, occasionally loan them money, and may even visit them in their Mexican or Caribbean homes during the winter off-season. When queried, around 70 percent of seasonal workers express overall satisfaction with the program, though many also voice complaints regarding program structure, rules, or implementation. Indeed, the high worker return rate has been routinely cited by employer organizations, government officials, and academics as evidence that the program works to everyone’s benefit. Canadian employers invite back a high proportion of workers for the following season, and the vast majority of those so invited choose to return.

SAWP hourly wages are several times higher than those available to poorly-educated rural workers and peasants in rural areas of Mexico and the Caribbean. Even if only slightly above provincial minimums—and thus low by Canadian standards—work weeks of fifty, sixty, or more hours make it possible for SAWP participants to save and remit home substantial sums. Many Mexican participants use remittances to construct, enlarge, or modernize houses, improve their diets, and even finance children’s education beyond the low secondary levels customary in most rural communities. A smaller number invest in land and livestock or capitalize small businesses that provide employment for one or two household members and generate additional income for the household. Most long-term migrants credit their participation in the SAWP for substantially improving the material conditions of their households. There seems no reason to doubt their word (see Chapter 5).

Canadian horticulturalists also appear relatively satisfied with the SAWP, if the program’s growth and geographical extension are any indication. For several decades the SAWP remained confined to Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and Manitoba. Since the turn of the millennium, however, the provincial governments of New Britain, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (all in 2001), Saskatchewan (2003), and British Columbia (2004) petitioned to enter the program, usually following complaints by horticultural grower organizations of chronic labor shortages. As a result, the SAWP now cuts a swath across southern Canada from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. The program continues to grow numerically and expand geographically despite complaints from employers that it is expensive and involves an excess of record keeping and managerial oversight. Canadian growers have discovered no alternative work force as well suited to the conditions of labor-intensive horticultural enterprises: the labor is cheap; it is flexible; and the workers are reliable, which is to say that they present themselves ready to work day-after-day, heat or cold, rain or shine. Foreign Area Resource Management Services (FARMS) president Gary Cooper opined that

Without the offshore workers, it would be next to impossible to farm. . . . Most of the fruits and vegetables in Ontario would not be grown. Canadians will still eat those fruits and vegetables, so why don't we enjoy the economic benefits of producing them? We can take Mexican tomatoes and ship them up here, you can send a Mexican to California to produce tomatoes there and ship them up here or you can send a Mexican up here and you grow the tomato here in Ontario.

Since 1987, when Ontario growers created FARMS and assumed day-to-day control of the operation, the program has cost the Canadian government little in monetary terms. Few Mexicans overstay work visas, and for decades the SAWP avoided the kind of negative publicity that contributed to the demise of the U.S. Bracero Program.Some Canadian government officials even suggest that SAWP participants’ mandatory contributions to Employment Insurance—which these workers are ineligible to collect—be considered “an ‘employee-fee’ for having access to the Canadian labour market”, and describe remittances returned by workers as a form of Canadian foreign aid to participating Third World countries.

These and other propositions are being challenged in the courts, in classrooms, on the Internet, in public forums, and occasionally on the farms themselves. Over the last decade, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has mounted court challenges to the Ontario provincial government’s prohibition against collective bargaining among agricultural workers and also litigated against payment into the Employment Insurance fund on the part of workers ineligible for most benefits. “El Contrato” (The Contract) an award-winning documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada and highly critical of the SAWP, aired in Canada during the fall of 2003. Wildcat work stoppages—one of the most recent asserting wage and housing contract violations on a farm in British Columbia—increasingly receive national media attention. Finally, Canadian activists organized into “Justicia for Migrant Workers” (J4MW) to educate the public about some of the seamier aspects of the SAWP (see Chapter 6).

The SAWP is also receiving growing attention from academics and journalists in Canada and Mexico who are researching and writing about previously untouched themes around the costs and trade-offs involved in workers’ participation. Recent work has addressed the unfree nature of the SAWP labor force; social exclusion and social inclusion of contract workers in rural communities; the developmental implications of remittances, women in the SAWP, and other issues. A small but growing Spanish-language literature exists on the SAWP, supported in part by Canadian Embassy research grants to Mexican students and academics. It is not my intention to summarize the literature on the SAWP here, for I draw liberally upon it in the course of this book. However, it is germane to note that since the mid-1990s, research has focused predominantly on Mexican participants, whereas a smaller corpus of writing produced between 1980 and 1995 treated mainly Caribbean workers, a shift that corresponds roughly to Mexico’s entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) and the increase in Mexican representation in the SAWP from approximately 20 percent of all workers in 1986 to more than 50 percent in 2001.

This book offers a critical examination of the SAWP based on interviews and observation in Mexico and Canada. As noted above, if a “model” program is replete with problems, what might we expect from the exponentially larger, less regulated contract labor programs that are being proposed or are underway in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere? If there is, as various scholars note, an inevitable trade-off between the number of temporary foreign workers and the rights accorded them—higher numbers necessarily accompanied by fewer rights—what might be the implication for our assessment of programs proposing to temporarily admit tens or even hundreds of thousands of workers if participants in a small, “model program” are sometimes poorly housed, frequently overworked, occasionally maltreated, exposed to dangerous chemicals without adequate training and/or protective gear, socially excluded from active participation in community life, and told to “aguntar” (endure) by the very officials charged with defending their rights?

Fields of Power, Social Fields, and Hegemony

In this book I draw on the concepts “fields of power” and “social fields” in order to socially and historically position Mexican workers, Canadian horticultural growers, consular officials, and others. These concepts have antecedents in anthropology in the work of Alexander Lesser, Max Glucksman, and Eric Wolf,, and in the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. But they were worked over and rendered more precise by William Roseberry. Like Glucksman, Lesser, and Wolf, Roseberry was bothered by anthropologists’ tendency to represent rural communities and peasantries as if they were not connected to or part of larger world historical processes. The question concerns the old problem of the relationship between macro and micro or outside and inside: macro and “outside” being the capitalist “world system,” the international mercantile economy, Europe, etc.; micro and “inside” referring to the relationships, often specific and delimited in space and time, investigated by anthropologists and other social scientists. Roseberry was aware that too often anthropologists failed in their efforts to organically connect macro and micro in terms of an extended network of relationships that blurred the inside/outside dichotomy. He formulated the problem in the following way:

The history of particular regions cannot be separated from the world historic processes of which they are a part, yet their history is not mechanically determined by the “world system.” The problem consists in part of understanding the “structures” that shape and limit the action of human subjects as well as in appreciating the action of human subjects in creating the very structures that limit them.

Roseberry deployed the mid-range concepts of “social field” and “field of power” as means of approaching the complexity of local history and social relationships while simultaneously acknowledging that observable local social relations have been structured by global processes of great reach, of which “local” histories form constituent parts. The field of power is constituted by networks of relationships—the precipitates of “world historic processes”—that impose structuration on local social fields. The relationships in a field of power are not “external” to those social fields but have been internalized as constitutive aspects of them, which is to say that such internalization is conditioned by existing tensions and protagonized by specific groups acting in the context of local history. For Roseberry, the field of power obliges us to pose a series of questions around the organization of production and changes in it; the positions occupied by persons, localities, and regions within the social and spatial networks of production and commercialization; the position and extension of influences, and so on, successively. The concept also takes into account the State and its laws, policies, agencies, institutions, procedures, and licenses, and even organized religion, which “has the power of applying divine sanction which has real social force for those who believe in it, and of creating communities of believers beyond which action and social relations can be unimaginable”. To summarize:

The concept of a “field of power” is designed to identify a multidimensional field of social relations that mark out particular positions for the subjects (men, women, adults, children, husbands, wives …) through which the subjects, individually and collectively, establish relationships with other subjects, institutions and agencies that form part of the field. The field is never limited to a particular locality, in so far as the central social relationships that define it form part of broader “webs” or “networks” of relationships. A locality occupies, nevertheless, a particular and specific position within the webs and networks, and the subjects generally act from these particular positions (although their actions can transcend them). To the degree that they act, they routinely establish relationships with other subjects, individually and collectively, marked by tensions characteristic of the structuration of the field. The field is maintained in a kind of tension. This tension, and the struggles that characterize it, are a creative and destructive force within the field.

Under contemporary conditions of globalization, we should not expect precisely the same reaction to, or the same consequences from, the construction of a Walmart in a Mexican neighborhood, the opening of a Korean maquiladora, or the arrival of significant amounts of “migradolares” returned to their communities by undocumented Mexican migrants working in New York City. Nor should we expect that every commodity sector (or specific agricultural enterprise) in southwestern Ontario will experience the same labor problems or that all the Mexicans hired to work there will have comparable experiences.

With respect to the last-mentioned point, the type of farm; the number and national/ethnic identification of the employees; and perhaps even the age, sex, and ethnic descent of the owner (English, German, Dutch, etc.) contribute to shape the local social field and the migrants’ experiences therein. But those experiences will also depend upon preexisting social arrangements and their subjective complements. Important here is the manner in which households in northwest Tlaxcala become part of fields of force that articulate relationships between social fields in two (or more) countries. I take the position that whereas the social fields of those households participating in the SAWP have been transnationalized, at least for the duration of the contract, the communities have not, or have not been transnationalized in the same way or to the same degree. The small size of the program, its seasonal character (for any participating migrant), the dispersed nature of recruitment in Mexico (hundreds of communities) and of work and living sites in Ontario and elsewhere (hundreds of farms), and the ironclad control exercised over participants while in Canada impede, if they do not rule out, independent worker organization.

The Gramscian concept of “hegemony” also plays an important role in this analysis. Hegemony refers to that constantly changing ratio between coercion and compliance in the exercise of rule by dominant over subordinate groups and is, as William Roseberry argued, better thought of as a means of understanding struggle than domination (see Crehan 2002). Indeed, Roseberry observed that the exercise of hegemony always implies a counter hegemony, a counter pressure of class struggle that shapes hegemony itself. In this book I investigate a variety of structures, processes, and experiences that condition relationships between Canadian growers and Mexican employees, highlighting the role of the domestic (Mexican) experience in the production and reproduction of a “dual frame of reference” through which wages in Canada—and the uses to which they can be put—are repeatedly compared to their counterparts in Mexico. Hegemony helps us understand why Mexican contract workers return year after year, why they so seldom engage in collective protests, and the spontaneous character of those protests that do take place.

Research in Northwest Tlaxcala and Southwest Ontario

Research for this book took place mainly in 2001–2002 in Tlaxcala, Mexico, and during August–September of 2003 in southwest Ontario. Both the Mexican state of Tlaxcala and the Canadian provincial government of Ontario are heavily involved in the SAWP. As I discuss in Chapter 1, the creation of the SAWP by the Canadian government was a response to pressure exerted by Ontario horticulturalists during the late 1950s and early 1960s; the initial 264 Jamaican SAWP recruits harvested tobacco there in 1966. During most of the program’s existence, Ontario fruit, vegetable, and tobacco growers employed between 75 and 80 percent of SAWP contract workers; this numerical domination continues today, albeit diminished somewhat with the recent extension of the SAWP to previously nonparticipating provinces. Indeed, as the program grew, it was transformed from a seasonal supplement of a largely Canadian horticultural work force in Ontario to an instrumental feature—Basok referred to it as a “structural necessity”—for the continued economic health of an industry whose annual revenues now exceed three hundred million Canadian dollars. In other words, the SAWP contributed to the “distortion” of the horticultural labor market.

If Ontario is the principal receiving province, Tlaxcala has been one of the most important sending states, leading all Mexican states during the last half of the 1990s, with between 22 and 23 percent of SAWP workers, before falling in recent years to second place among Mexican states, with about 17 percent of participants. Most recruits originate from Tlaxcala’s high, dry northwest zone, little more than an hour’s bus ride from Mexico City. Tlaxcalans began to enlist in the SAWP soon after the Mexican government signed on to the program in 1974, for which reason some communities are home to people with ten, fifteen, twenty, and more years of SAWP experience.

The work in Tlaxcala unfolded in Atotonilco, Nanacamilpa, and Sanctorum. All three number among the top SAWP source communities in Tlaxcala, but dispersed recruitment meant that at the community or municipal level, participating households represented but a small percentage of all households. For instance, Verduzco and Lozano reported 207 SAWP workers in Sanctorum and 188 in Nanacamilpa, representing 13.7 and 5.7 percent, respectively, of all households in those municipalities. This fact shaped my project in fundamental ways, moving it more in a sociological than anthropological-ethnographic direction. I focused on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, the relationships and contradictions therein, as opposed to the way that whole communities may have been transformed as a result of the participation of a minority of local households in it.

Much of the information derived from in-depth interviews, administered in two phases by a team of trained interviewers of which I formed part. The first phase took place during the fall of 2001, when most active migrants had yet to return home from their Canadian workplaces; former migrants dismissed or voluntarily retired from the program predominated among the sixty “phase one” interviewees. I modified the interview schedule before a second round of interviews in winter of 2002, eliminating or rephrasing questions that seemed unnecessary or unclear, and adding additional questions in order to explore selected issues in greater detail. The interview schedule contained structured, semistructured, and open-ended questions designed to elicit information about household demography, socioeconomic indicators, recruitment to the SAWP, residence in Canada (province, type and size of farm, relationship to the owner), work experience (tasks, length of workweek, presence or absence of rest days), contacts with Mexican consular personnel, remittances and the uses to which they were put in Mexico, impact on the household, and the interviewee’s overall assessment of life and work in Canada. The second phase yielded 137 interviews, which, combined with the 60 from the first phase, gave a grand total of 197 interviews. Ten interviewees applied to the program but failed to gain admission or retired before working in Canada; several others had never applied for the program but were included for comparative purposes because of their U.S. H-2A work experience (for instance, see the discussion of “Inocencio” in Chapter 3).

Interview teams employed a snowball method in which they sought assistance from earlier interviewees, municipal mayors, neighborhood merchants, and even passersby in order to locate new subjects. There exists no official registry of all current and former SAWP participants. Most interviews took place in the subject’s home, though a small number were carried out during celebrations (birthdays, weddings), in the home of a third party, at local work sites, or on the street. On occasion, interviewers received invitations to weddings, birthdays, or other celebrations, where they were offered chicken with mole sauce, rice and beans, cake, sodas, and other food and drink commonly served on festive occasions. The openness of current and former SAWP participants surprised both me and the field assistants, composed of students and researchers from the Autonomous University of Tlaxcala. However difficult to document, this willingness to embrace “difference”—whether difference comes in the form of people or experiences—may be one of the enduring consequences of repeated seasonal work trips to Canada.

This is not to say that all people we contacted responded to our queries candidly and in detail or that all were even willing to collaborate in the investigation. But the overall refusal level was less than five percent, and many people who evinced reticence or resistance in the initial stages of the interview warmed up once they understood that we had no formal relationship with either participating government. Some interviews continued for two, three, or even four hours and addressed numerous themes not contemplated in the schedule. Quantifiable material was coded and input into a database for analysis in the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS); the results contributed many of the graphs, charts, and tables present in this book.

In August and September of 2003, I carried out a month of fieldwork in Ontario, destination of over 77 percent of the migrants in the sample during their last contract labor episode. A rented car made it possible to appreciate firsthand the marked differences in crop regimes—from open field vegetables in the flat Holland Marsh area north of Toronto to orchards (cherry and peach, among others) and commercial nurseries in the Niagara peninsula, tobacco and ginseng farms around Simcoe, and acres of greenhouses in Leamington, located in Essex county at the province’s southwestern extremity. I attended Spanish-language church services in Niagara-on-the-Lake and a so-called Encounter of Two Cultures in Leamington (see Chapter 6). I interviewed flower growers and nursery owners in St. Catherines, as well as a representative of the growers’ Foreign Area Resource Management Services (FARMS) and representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which seeks to organize Ontario farmworkers. I also spoke to the staff of UFCW-linked Migrant Worker Support Centres located in Bradford, Simcoe, and Leamington.

Often I crossed paths with Mexican and Caribbean contract workers laboring in fields, biking along rural roads, shopping in area food stores, attending church, or receiving assistance or participating in free English or bicycle safety classes in the support centers. Conversations with the workers were differentially contextualized and constrained: I judge that they were freer and more candid in the support centers, somewhat more cautious during chats that followed church services or over meals in their employer-provided quarters. Officials from the Mexican Consulate in Toronto kindly accorded me two lengthy interviews (totaling seven hours) during which they expounded their views of the SAWP and provided additional insights into the program’s history, structure, and operation. The Vice-Consul charged with overseeing Mexican consular officials in Ontario allowed me to listen in on a conference call during which he attempted to negotiate with a tobacco grower over his abrupt dismissal of two Mexican workers (see Chapter 2).

The month-long fieldwork in Ontario supplied a broader context for understanding viewpoints and feelings about living and working in Canada expressed by migrants during interviews in their home communities; it also helped ground my reading of the literature dealing with the SAWP. I did not, however, meet any of the migrants whom I or my team had interviewed earlier in Tlaxcala. I had instructed interviewers to refrain from soliciting either the name of the Canadian employer or that of the farm in the belief that requesting such information might lead subjects to question our allegiances and motives and that workers might hold off reporting on illnesses, unfair treatment, episodes of discriminatory and racist treatment, and so on in order to “avoid trouble” that could jeopardize their economic futures. Some workers shied away from discussing some potentially sensitive topics anyway, such as the nature of their contacts with the Mexican Consulate. Others volunteered their employer’s name and insisted that we record accurately their ordeals and the unfair treatment to which they felt they had been subjected. I name those persons who occupied prominent public positions and reproduce accurately the nicknames Mexican workers assigned to two notoriously disliked Canadian growers, but have maintained the anonymity of all workers encountered in Tlaxcala and Canada, as well as employers interviewed in Canada.

I returned to Canada briefly in the spring of 2007 to participate in a public forum on the SAWP at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. There I informally interviewed FARMS president Ken Forth. More useful in updating my understanding of the SAWP and of Mexico–Canada–United States migration was my participation in three seminars that brought together public officials, NGO representatives, and academics. The first took place in June 2006 in Ottawa, where I presented a paper on contract labor migration and rural development to representatives of FARMS, the Guatemalan and Canadian governments, and the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), which hosted the event. Then on 5–6 June 2008, the Colegio de Tlaxcala organized and sponsored “The First Regional Seminar on Tlaxcalan Migration to the United States and Canada” in San Pablo Apetatitlán, Tlaxcala; this event was followed a few weeks later (23–24 June) by an “Expert Dialogue on Labour Mobility in North America” in Mexico City, organized by FOCAL, the North American Studies Center (CISAN) of Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), and the Metropolis Project. The presentations and discussions in these seminars pressed upon me the speed with which government-to-government negotiations about TFWPs were being developed and the importance of raising a cautionary voice. The “Expert Dialogue” was conducted under Charterhouse Rules, which prevent me from directly quoting participants, but I feel comfortable noting that “complementarity” between Canadian labor demand and Mexican supply was uncritically assumed by most (not all) participants. And whereas the term “better practices” seemed to have displaced “best practices” by 2008, no one mentioned the word capitalism or discussed “surplus labor extraction” in two long days of relatively candid discussion.

Synopsis of Chapters

Chapter 1, “Agricultural Crisis, Migration, and Contract Labor: Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Ontario, Canada” traces postwar agrarian developments in specific regions of two countries in order to analyze the social and historical genesis of labor market complementarity: rural Tlaxcala as an exporter of agricultural wage workers; southern Ontario as one important destination. The comparative examination reveals that “complementarity” was neither necessary nor inevitable but the product of particular social and historical relationships unfolding at global, national, and regional levels through which social fields formed and reformed over time through conflict and struggle.

Chapter 2, “The Dual Process of Constructing Mexican Contract Workers,” analyzes the structuration of the social fields that compose the SAWP and traces some of the tensions that shape struggles therein. I discuss the particularly weak position of Mexican (and Caribbean) workers, who are dispersed among hundreds of rural communities and who lack independent representation before Canadian employers, consular personnel, and the Canadian government. However, I also register the contradictory positionings of Mexican government representatives who negotiate and advocate on behalf of the workers in a climate of competition with multiple Caribbean suppliers of labor power. Finally, I explain how the social field concept enables insights into the overall satisfaction expressed by the majority of Mexican workers, even as many complain of overwork, mistreatment, and substandard conditions on Canadian farms.

Chapter 3, titled “‘Tomorrow We’re All Going to the Harvest,’: Case Studies of Contract Labor Migration,” offers condensed narratives of migration experience constructed on the basis of in-depth interviews with sixteen SAWP participants or, in a few cases, U.S. H-2A contract labor migrants. The material complements statistical analysis of interview data, sharpens our understanding of the situations precipitating adscription to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, and provides details of migrants’ individual experiences. In later sections of this book I repeatedly refer back to these narratives in order to illustrate specific points.

Chapter 4, “Interrogating Racialized Global Labor Supply: Caribbean and Mexican Workers in Canada’s SAWP,” discusses the progressive displacement of Caribbean workers by Mexican ones since the mid-1980s. There coauthor Kerry Preibisch and I argue that, whereas “hard racism” undoubtedly explains a portion of the ethnic/racial/national shift in the contract labor work force, a “soft racism” based on the assignment of different ethnic/racial/national groups to specific commodity sectors better accounts for hiring trends. As commodity sectors dominated historically by this or that Mexican or Caribbean group expand or contract, so do opportunities for employment. We also record and analyze critically the racialized beliefs through which Canadian employers explain or justify recruitment and task assignment. We observe that Mexicans’ lack of English-language facility and weak or nonexistent social networks in urban Ontario make them a more tractable and thus more exploitable labor force than Caribbeans. Some Ontario growers even engage in “country surfing,” through which they deliberately shift from one labor supply country to another in a search for the most exploitable work force.

Chapter 5, “The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and Mexican Development,” takes up the relationship between migrant remittances and social and economic development. The discussion in this chapter is framed by the proposition that migrants trade off prolonged separation from their loved ones, social isolation in Canada, and long days of hard, physical work under extreme climatic conditions for economic betterment. I acknowledge the material improvements that some migrant workers—especially those with many trips to Canada—have been able to make, but suggest that sustaining these improvements often depends on continued participation in the SAWP. However, I draw upon a broad conception of development developed by Amartya Sen to argue that under capitalism, and particularly among migrant workers, advances along one developmental dimension come at the expense of “losses” along one or more others. Finally, I present evidence to dispute claims that remittance-based investment in human capital formation through education results in transgenerational development.

Chapter 6 addresses “The Political Economy of Contract Labor in Neoliberal North America: Cheap Labor and Organized Labor.” The chapter begins by taking up the U.S. H-2A program in North Carolina and the role there of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). From the FLOC’s successful organizing campaign I move to discuss UFCW efforts to organize SAWP (particularly Mexican) workers and the opposition to that organization mounted by FARMS and the Canadian and Mexican governments. Against the structure-agency dichotomy that has gained ground in anthropology and sociology in recent decades, I suggest that the extreme degree of structuration of SAWP (unfree) labor relegates most protests to the kind of “backstage” carping and growling discussed by James Scott (1990), for which reason contract workers require the assistance and active support of sympathetic Canadian residents and citizens.

Finally, Chapter 7, “Globalization and Temporary Migrants: Post-National Citizens, Realpolitik, and Disposable Labor Power,” discusses post-national citizenship and social inclusion/exclusion in relation to migrant labor in general and contract labor systems in particular, and contrasts the post-national perspective with one that turns around worker disposability. I mark the limits of post-national citizenship both theoretically, through discussion of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s analysis of globalized capital and the State, and empirically, via the Canadian government’s introduction of programs for low-skill migrant workers that provide far fewer benefits and safeguards than the SAWP. I also discuss the relevance of this approach to contemporary immigration regimes in the United States and Canada.


“Binford has written an impressive and compelling book on the Canadian SAWP. The critical examination of this highly regarded program is timely as governments and industries argue for programs of their own without consideration of the human costs involved. For anthropologists entering into the fray of globalization and the consequences of neoliberal policies, this book makes a welcome contribution.”
American Anthropologist

“There is no study of these programs that even comes close to Binford’s book in terms of the amazing level of research. . . . It is well written, compelling and richly told, and above all it is really model scholarship. . . . This is not simply the best book on temporary foreign worker programs, but it speaks to larger issues of immigration, agriculture, and neoliberalism.”
Steve Striffler, Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies and Professor of Anthropology and Geography, University of New Orleans

“Fresh information. . . . A clear and highly readable argument [that] does a good job of covering virtually all the issues surrounding guest worker programs. Readers of this work will be impressed not only with this breadth but with the human detail Binford dons on each of these issues, giving them flesh and blood.”
David Griffith, Professor of Anthropology and Senior Scientist, Institute for Coastal Science and Policy, East Carolina University


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