QR code menus have become commonplace as a contactless option offered by most restaurants and an activist group is cleverly subverting their purpose to spread awareness about where the items on the menu come from and what they say is their true cost.
“We’re putting stickers up in restaurants which say ‘The Secret Menu’ on it and have a QR code. So when restaurant goers are there, they think, ‘hey, this is this restaurant’s secret menu,'” explains Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC).
“When they scan it, they come upon something that looks like a menu, but each menu item reveals a story of exploitation and abuse of migrant farm workers.”
Hussan says the stories are not works of fiction for dramatic effect, but real-life accounts from members of MWAC.
Items like “to-die-for sweet potatoes” tell the story of a worker from Jamaica who died in a farming accident. “Hazardous house sangria” talks about a farm worker from Mexico who was sexually assaulted by her employer and threatened with deportation if she reported it.
He adds that these oft-abused workers are critical links in the supply chain that ensure Canadians have food on their tables.
“The vast majority of food in this country is grown by migrant workers … anything that you are consuming has likely been harvested, packaged, produced, planted, perhaps driven by migrant farm workers,” he says.
The reason migrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation is because of their precarious immigration status, Hussan adds.
“If a farm worker is speaking up about abuse, they can be fired. They live in employee controlled housing, so they become homeless. They’re not allowed to work for anyone else, so they’re now starving because they’re only able to work for the employer listed on their permit. They can be kicked out of the country, so they’re deported – all because of immigration rules,” he says.
“Permanent resident status is the mechanism through which you access all other rights … so migrant farm workers are literally dying, facing sexual assault, lower wages, living in inhumane housing conditions because the federal government has denied them permanent residence status.”
Robert, a migrant from Jamaica, came to Canada in 2016 and has experienced first-hand what he calls the “deplorable conditions” that farm workers have to contend with.
“We were not informed that the conditions under which we were coming to live and work would’ve been nothing short of what our fore-parents would’ve gone through while they were treated as slaves in their days,” he says.
“To come home to a condition that makes you feel like you are in an animal lifestyle — it’s not acceptable”
He says he worked in greenhouses with unhealthy conditions that led to frequent illnesses, but healthcare was almost entirely inaccessible.
“For us to get any form of health access, it would have to come from our own pockets,” he says.
If they did seek medical help, Robert says workers were treated differently based on which farm they worked at.
“The truth surrounding our health was not being told to us … and oftentimes our employers take issue with us going back and forth seeking health assistance, so that brings us into vulnerability.” he says.
If they complained or protested about working and living conditions, Robert says they were asked to put up with it or go home.
Hussan says ‘The Secret Menu’ was launched to not only raise awareness about the plight of workers like Robert, but as a call to action.
“Anybody who eats, anybody who drinks wine, if you smell a flower that’s grown here, you are part of the food chain and you have the responsibility and the ability to make a change,” he says.
At the end of the menu, readers are given the option to send a tweet or sign a petition addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling on him to “end migrant farm worker abuse, and specifically to ensure full and permanent immigration status for all migrants.”
“We have had enough of it. We want to work, we will work. But the circumstances and conditions under which we are working is not acceptable,” says Robert. “We are calling on [the Prime Minister] for regularization for us as farm workers, and also permanent status so that we can have rights and protect ourselves from these deplorable conditions and the way in which we have been treated.”