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Harvesting Labour: Tobacco and the Global Making of Canada’s Agricultural Workforce

In recent decades an increasing share of Canada’s agricultural workforce has been made up of temporary foreign workers from the Global South. These labourers work difficult and dangerous jobs with limited legal protections and are effectively barred from permanent settlement in Canada.

In Harvesting Labour Edward Dunsworth examines the history of farm work in one of Canada’s underrecognized but most important crop sectors – Ontario tobacco. Dunsworth takes aim at the idea that temporary foreign worker programs emerged in response to labour shortages or the unwillingness of Canadians to work in agriculture. To the contrary, Ontario’s tobacco sector was extremely popular with workers for much of the twentieth century, with high wages attracting a diverse workforce and enabling thousands to establish themselves as small farm owners. By the end of the century, however, the sector had become something entirely different: a handful of mega-farms relying on foreign guest workers to produce their crops. Taking readers from the leafy fields of Ontario’s tobacco belt to rural Jamaica, Barbados, and North Carolina and on to the halls of government, Dunsworth demonstrates how the ultimate transformation of tobacco – and Canadian agriculture writ large – was fundamentally a function of the capitalist restructuring of farming.

Harvesting Labour brings together the fields of labour, migration, and business history to reinterpret the historical origins of contemporary Canadian agriculture and its workforce.

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