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The Square Tomato Capital of Canada

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Issue: 37 Section: Labour Geography: Ontario Leamington Topics: labour, food security

May 25, 2006

The Square Tomato Capital of Canada

Leamington, Ontario: "The Best Place To Live" For Who?

by Van Ferrier

Leamington, Ontario is the "Tomato Capital of the World." photo: The Municipality of Leamington
The results are finally in. Leamington ON (pop. 25,000) is the best place to live in Canada. Or so says MoneySense Magazine, which found Leamington to be "Canada's best kept secret" after researching 108 communities of at least 10,000 people across the country.

Leamington topped most of the study's categories, including population growth, income per capita, employment, economic diversity, and housing prices. Leamington also scored big points for the weather.

With arguably the best climate in Canada, agricultural output is naturally Leamington's golden egg. In fact, Leamington boasts the single largest grouping of vegetable greenhouses in North America. Leamington's Economic Development Officer, Anne Miskovsky, says there are more greenhouses in Leamington than in the entire United States.

Leamington isn't called the tomato capital of Canada for nothing. Tomatoes are by far Leamington's largest greenhouse vegetable crop, supplying the local Heinz processing plant and supermarkets across North America.

Economic indicators of the MoneySense report show that Leamington benefits from robust and steady growth thanks to its agriculture sector. Greenhouses alone generate about $1 billion every year in revenue for the local economy. However, according to Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant workers (an Ontario-based NGO), little of that prosperity is being shared with a largely migrant workforce.

"The magazine ignores migrant workers because they are not included in any of the data sets from which the criteria are formed," says Ramsaroop. Though migrant workers spend several months of the year in Canada, they are not granted Canadian citizenship and thus were ignored by the MoneySense report.

Every year since 1966, thousands of Mexican guest workers have come to Leamington as part of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Many of these workers supply cheap labour to the lucrative tomato business thereby fueling local business development. According to Ramsaroop, migrant workers suffer from poor living and working conditions with little or no legal protection. He challenges MoneySense to spend a day in the life of a migrant worker to see if it matches the level of well-being trumpeted in the article.

An Ontario court recently ruled that farm workers are not permitted to unionize. While workers are allowed to form worker associations to voice their concerns, employers are not obliged to respond. Michael Fraser, National Director of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, says the decision by Ontario Superior Court Justice James Farley means that farm workers will continue to be exploited and treated like second-class citizens.

Workers have reported a variety of abuses, including badly maintained and crowded living quarters and exposure to unsafe levels of pesticides. Migrant workers often remain silent, however, fearing the loss of an income that is often crucial to their family in Mexico.

Leamington's model of development – one that favours economic efficiency over the well-being of its workforce – is much like the story of the square tomato.

When tomato producers sought to intensify production in the 1960s, they hired researchers to come up with something more efficient than the existing mechanized tomato picker. But rather than reinventing a tomato picker to fit the fragile contours of a ripe tomato, they reinvented the glorious red fruit to fit the picker. The result was a square tomato. This tasteless fruit turned out to be harmful to public health and the project was subsequently dropped.

Leamington has chosen to use migrant farm workers – people willing to work longer hours for lower wages than those in the domestic workforce – to power its economic engine. At the same time, these workers are denied the legal rights that would improve their quality of life.

"Any meaningful evaluation of a community's quality of life should certainly include the well-being of its workforce," says Ramsaroop, who notes MoneySense magazine missed an excellent opportunity to discuss the very real challenges facing migrant workers in Canada's tomato capital.

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