The Lasting Impacts of Racial Capitalism: Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP)

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Understanding Racial Capitalism

Since its inception, capitalism has persisted due to the racial inequality in which it was built. The hierarchies present in feudal societies were reinforced at the onset of capitalism (Robinson, 2000) and further exacerbated by colonialism and the slave trade (Rodney, 2011). Racial capitalism refers to these inherent linkages between race and capitalistic structures (Robinson, 2000). The impacts of racial capitalism are rife throughout the world, not excluding Canada. For instance, Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) is a modern manifestation of racial capitalism and labour hierarchies based on nationality (McCausland, 2020). In this blogpost, I will examine racial capitalism by arguing that the parallels between colonialism, the slave trade, and the Canadian agriculture industry were drawn by racial capitalism, and the resulting inequalities persist due to the global economy’s dependence on this unjust system.

Racial capitalism refers to … inherent linkages between race and capitalistic structures.

Many scholars throughout the 1900s outlined the interconnectedness of race and capitalism, such as Eric Williams, who explained this connection in the context of slavery (1944). However, the idea that racialization and capitalism are interlinked was first coined racial capitalism by Cedric Robinson in his 1983 book, Black Marxism (2000). Today, racial capitalism, as a concept, is used within both academic and activist circles, and is particularly important to international development discourse (Leong, 2012).

Cedric Robinson speaking at a public event.
Cedric Robinson Speaking” by Doc Searls is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Specifically, racial capitalism describes a system in which certain races or nationalities achieve economic and social growth by exploiting others (Robinson, 2000). Overwhelmingly, this occurs when societies in the Global North use societies in the Global South in the name of capital growth. Racial capitalism occurs at the micro-level through individuals and companies and at the macro-level through the imperial and colonial conquest undertaken by the Global North (Leong, 2012). Today’s capitalist system is more globalized than it was when it emerged, yet this has only further exacerbated the racial injustices involved with capital and economic growth (Robinson, 2000).

The Origins of Racial Capitalism

To understand racial capitalism, it is imperative to examine the societies from which capitalism emerged (Robinson, 2000). Pre-colonial and pre-capitalist societies, notably feudalism, were characterized by agriculture, traditional land ownership practices, and a division of labour. The key difference between capitalist societies and feudal societies is that instead of exchanging money and capital, feudal societies exchanged land and labour. Specifically, peasants and agricultural workers lived on the farm owners’ land in exchange for their labour (Robinson, 2000). Nonetheless, there were profound racial and social differences between nations, communities, and individuals in pre-capitalist societies (McCausland, 2020). Capitalism did not replace feudalism, but instead emerged from these pre-existing inequities, amplifying the complexities of racial injustices and hierarchies (Robinson, 2000). Because of the origins of capitalism, racism and capitalism are inseparable– at least in the way that capitalism is currently practiced (Leong, 2012).

The marginalization of races, genders, and people which was exacerbated by the slave trade paved the way for future racial capitalist systems globally.

Capitalism became the hegemonic system of the world’s economy because of imperialism and the Global North’s endless quest to colonize (Rodney, 2011). In the famous book, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanonstates that imperialism and colonialism have resulted in the working and living conditions of colonized countries degrading significantly to an inhumane state (1963). Paralleling the experience of countries in Africa, the struggle to achieve economic and political dependence after existing under colonial rule can be seen in many countries in the Caribbean and South America, where the presence of unemployment, corruption, and poverty is overwhelming (McCausland, 2020). The marginalization of races, genders, and people which was exacerbated by the slave trade paved the way for future racial capitalist systems globally (McCausland, 2020).

Racial Capitalism in Canada

As a student studying International Development, when I first began researching racial capitalism for this blogpost, I focused on countries in the Global South. I imagined the stereotypical overworked female textile workers in Bangladesh, tired farmers picking coffee beans in hot climate of Brazil, or other exploited and marginalized populations producing capital for the Global North. However, I quickly began to realize the reflection, or more accurately manifestation, of racial capitalism in the very community where I grew up: Southwestern Ontario.

An agricultural worker in British Columbia
Canada and B.C. support agriculture innovation and competitiveness. Province of British Columbia. 19 July 2013. Flickr Commons.

Every summer, for approximately 4-6 months, thousands of migrant farmworkers—primarily from the Caribbean—come to Canada to fill the labour gaps within our agriculture industry (McCausland, 2020). This program emerged following a severe labour shortage in Canada’s Agricultural industry between 1945 and 1965. In response, the Canadian government partnered with governments of Caribbean countries to create this program (Barnes, 2013). At first glance, the program may appear to be a win-win solution that addresses two pressing issues: 1) lack of employment opportunities in Caribbean countries and 2) labour shortages in Canada’s agriculture sector (McCausland, 2020). Yet, upon further examination, it becomes clear that this program enforces racial discrimination and human rights abuses by subjecting participants to exploitation, discrimination, and isolation from the rest of Canadian societies.

Participants of this program are not given the same rights as Canadian workers or citizens and are denied the opportunity to apply for permanent residency or citizenship (McCausland, 2020). Migrant farmworkers are overworked and underpaid, as they are not given the same rights as Canadians (Barnes 2013, 665). They experience abuses including unsafe working conditions, discrimination, low wages due to their migrant status, limited access to legal and labor rights, and restrictions on their immigration status that deny them access to services and rights available to Canadian citizens. They also endure state control over their travel documents, restrictions on physical mobility, and an inability to change employers or work contracts (Asomah, 2014). Additionally, migrant farm workers were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 throughout the pandemic (Kelley, 2020).

Canadian Agribusiness Profits

Through the mistreatment and dehumanization of migrant farmworkers, SAWP allows Canadian agribusiness to expand and earn large profits (McCausland 2020). Because of the cheap labour, Canadian agribusinesses are a forefront player in the Canadian supply chain and play an active role in setting food prices in Canada (Ortega et al. 2016). This allows large food corporations to merge with other large corporations and investors, resulting in higher profits for the company, of which a disproportionate amount goes to the people in management (Ortega et al. 2016). Relating this to racial capitalism, the managers (most of whom are white and from the Global North) gain a significant profit from the program. In contrast, the farmworkers (most of whom are non-white and from the Global South) gain minimal profits (McCausland 2020). So, like many instances throughout history, economic growth of the Global North is coming at the expense of the Global South (McCausland 2020).

Through the mistreatment and dehumanization of migrant farmworkers, SAWP allows Canadian agribusiness to expand and earn large profits.

Why, when the conditions of the program are so dire, do workers continue to work month after month, year after year? Due to the lasting implications of colonialism, the Slave Trade, and racial capitalism more generally, the economies of Caribbean countries are weak, and poverty is prevalent (McCausland, 2020). Fanon (2004) states that as previously colonized countries gain independence, “the masses battle with the same poverty [and] wrestle with the same age-old gestures” (53). The Caribbean is a prime example of countries that are suffering from the long-lasting impacts of colonialism and racial capitalism (McCausland, 2020).

Additionally, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) undertaken by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are intended to improve a countries economic structure, are paradoxically a leading cause of poverty in the Caribbean (McCausland, 2020). Due to the impacts of racial capitalism, international institutions give loans to certain countries with the goal of economic reform. Yet these loans come with stipulations and conditions that are then imposed on the recipient countries. In the case of the Caribbean, these programs gave power to corporations that favour monoculture and profit-making crops that require less labour input. This resulted in high levels of unemployment and underemployment in these countries (McCausland, 2020). Thus, farmworkers who are desperate for an income must leave their home countries in search of work. They do not play this role in our food system by choice but instead because necessity (Barnes, 2013).

Racial capitalism has resulted in disparities worldwide (Robinson 2000). Canada has benefited from racial capitalism, while countries such as those in much of Africa and the Caribbean are continually exploited by the endless strive for economic growth (McCausland 2020; Rodney 2011). The reason for much of the world’s underdevelopment and consequently the need for development initiatives is European conquest and imperialism. International Development involves the flow of money from the Global North to the Global South, yet the Global South being in this dependent position because of Western hegemony and racial capitalism (Rodney 2011). Furthermore, these types of economic development initiatives exacerbate racialization and economic dependence. Within the development discourse, it is important to understand the racial inequities inherent in the capitalist system to increase equity and justice throughout the world (Leong 2012).


Asomah, J. Y. (2014). Understanding the role of the state in promoting capitalist accumulation: a case study of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Canadian Graduate Journal of Sociology and Criminology3(2), 117-133.

Barnes, Nielan. “Is health a labour, citizenship or human right? Mexican seasonal agricultural workers in Leamington, Canada.” Global Public Health 8, no. 6 (2013): 654-669.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Wretched of the Earth. 1961.” Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press 6 (2004).

Kothari, Ashish, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. “Buen Vivir, degrowth and ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to sustainable development and the green economy.” Development 57, no. 3-4 (2014): 362-375.

McCausland, Julie Ann. “Racial capitalism, slavery, labour regimes and exploitation in the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.” Caribbean Quilt 5 (2020): 55-61.

Ortega, María Isabel, Samantha Sabo, Patricia Aranda Gallegos, Jill Eileen Guernsey De Zapien, Antonio Zapien, Gloria Elena Portillo Abril, and Cecilia Rosales. “Agribusiness, corporate social responsibility, and health of agricultural migrant workers.” Frontiers in Public Health 4 (2016): 54.

Robinson, Cedric J., Damien Sojoyner, and Kelley Robin D G. “). Racial Capitalism: The Nonobjective Character of Capitalist Development.” Essay. In Black Marxism the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 9–28. University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Rodney, Walter, Angela Y. Davis, Vincent Harding, Robert A. Hill, and William Strickland. “The European Slave Trade as a Basic Factor in African Underdevelopment.” Essay. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 95–103. Black Classic Press, 2011.

Kelley, M. (Director). (2020, November 20). Bitter Harvest: The story of the pandemic and the people who pick our food. CBC News: the Fifth Estate.

Leong, Nancy. “RACIAL CAPITALISM.” Harvard Law Review 126, no. 8 (2013): 2151–2226.

Williams, Eric Eustace. Capitalism & Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Feature Image: Agriculture workers on a strawberry farm. Agriculture workers in Argentina benefited by Provincial Agricultural Development Project (PROSAP), financed by the World Bank. Photo: Nahuel Berger / World Bank. Flickr Commons.
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Amber McNeil

Amber is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in the Specialist International Development Co-Op program with a double minor in Political Science and Environmental Management. Previously, she was a research assistant for the Feeding City Lab housed at UofT. Currently, she is living and working in Turrialba, Costa Rica on a Co-Op placement.

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