Amidst all the disruption, the suffering and the fear, the one good thing you could say about our ongoing experience with COVID-19 is that it has peeled back the layers of our society to expose the raw — and sometimes unpleasant — truths about what we truly value.
When childcare workers can earn more income through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) than they do at their jobs, we have a problem. When our elders are housed in facilities that cannot adequately provide for their care, we have a problem.
When the people who produce our food can’t find enough workers to help them get that job done, we have a problem.
Each of these issues is layered in complexities, but at their core, it comes down to our collective values as a society.
That reality came into a sharper focus for me when I read comments this week by Acadia Students Union president Brendan MacNeil saying unemployed university students shouldn’t be expected to help out on Nova Scotia farms which are short of labour this growing season.
“It is true that there is an unmet supply and demand between agriculture and student labour, but making that request of students who are preparing to be accountants, doctors, teachers, and researchers is akin to asking our farmers to fill job vacancies in call centres,” MacNeil said in a written statement to The Chronicle Herald.
“It’s something they could do, but would be very difficult and arbitrary to transition into, given the value their specific skills provide to society. It is the same with students, we are working to develop our skills and find jobs in our fields that will leave us, and in the end society, with a larger lasting impact.”
It’s tempting to say a little bit of hard work and dirt under the fingernails would do these kids some good. Maybe it would, but consider the training, the turnover rates and the safety concerns with on-boarding inexperienced recruits within the compressed timelines of a Canadian growing season.
As a teenager, a friend and I sought out a summer job with a local farmer hoeing sugar beets. We lasted two days and I suspect the farmer paid us out of kindness; it sure wasn’t for our productivity.
The fact that we have produced generations of young people who see manual labour as beneath them is on us, not our kids. Few parents would enthusiastically support their offspring seeking a summer job, let alone a career, working on a vegetable farm.
Yet someone still has to do those jobs. Not every task in agriculture can be mechanized, at least not yet. So we import people from poorer countries who don’t expect — nor do they receive — the same working and living standards we would expect as Canadians.
The fact is, the living and working conditions for those temporary foreign employees place them at risk during the pandemic for the same reasons workers in our meat-processing sector are at risk. There are news reports of a cluster of cases among temporary foreign workers in Manitoba and hundreds of cases surfacing among Ontario farm workers.
We own that. We can’t just blame the farmers. They have to make a living too, and if their costs make local vegetables more expensive, the grocery stores will simply import cheaper produce from other places where working conditions are even worse.
I have written about agriculture, food and rural issues throughout my career. I’ve lived among farmers for all of my life. I despair at the growing divide between farmers and non-farmers, but I see fault on both sides.
If we as Canadians truly value a domestic food supply, we need to support a supply chain that values the roles of every link. COVID-19 is showing us that some of the least-appreciated workers in our society — the workers on the farm, in the food factories and in the grocery stores — are some of the most important.
MacNeil’s comments undoubtedly drew some flack. To his credit, he published a full apology in the same newspaper a few days later, saying he regrets expressing the sentiment that other fields of work are more valuable than farming. He also acknowledged that labour-intensive jobs are skill-building opportunities that can teach the value of hard work.
However, the fact that he backed down doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. We face an uncomfortable truth.