Hundreds of customers who scanned QR codes for restaurant menus across Canada in the past two months likely stumbled on secret menus instead, which revealed the hidden human costs behind popular food items.
The secret menus were designed and distributed by Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) — a Canadian civil-rights organization working to expose exploitative working conditions including low wages, unsafe labor, poor housing, family separation and long days of backbreaking labor — in collaboration with creative agency Sid Lee.
“Most of the food we eat every day comes from the backbreaking labor of migrants; this is the secret behind all our menus,” says MWAC executive director Syed Hussan. “With this collaboration, Sid Lee helped us convey the issue to new people by garnering media attention.”
Launched in February, the Secret Menu was covertly planted on top of existing menu QR codes in hundreds of restaurants, bars and other eateries in Toronto and Ottawa, in a guerilla marketing stunt. Scanning the QR code took visitors to the Secret Menu website, where diners could learn more about the human cost of food through nine menu items — including “Dangerously Delicious Corn Bread,” “Pesti-Side Fruit Salad,” “Squashed Dreams Ravioli” and the “Wickedly Cruel Whiskey Sour.”
The accompanying video is told from the perspective of a migrant worker, who describes facing unsafe conditions and exploitation. “[Y]our food should come with fair working conditions and full immigration status for workers like me,” says the voiceover.
The goal of the stunt was to communicate a critical point: Migrant workers need permanent resident status, which would entitle them to stronger enforcement of better labor conditions and fundamental civil rights. The bottom of the secret menu prompted restaurant patrons to sign a petition demanding such changes; MWAC said the petition attracted over 700 signatures.
According to CTV News, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlined Canada’s immigration policy priorities in December 2021, he promised expanded pathways to permanent resident status for temporary foreign workers. Over a year later, there has been no further action.
As Robert, a Jamaican migrant greenhouse worker, told CTV News: “Because the current laws don’t protect our health, safety and working status, those of us who speak up are ignored and many others decide to stay silent in fear of deportation and losing their livelihood.”
Each year, over 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers come to Canada from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. Unfortunately, they often face exploitation including unsafe working conditions, poor housing, and no medical coverage. Recently, 74 percent of Mexican migrant farmers reported being given no workplace health coverage or safety information at all, according to MWAC. Between January 2020 and June 2021, nine migrant agricultural workers died in Ontario.
“It’s crucial to understand that if you eat in this country … you are implicated in this food chain,” Hussan said. “Each and every one of us is implicated.”
The plight of Canadian migrant workers echoes the dire conditions that millions of migrant workers face across the developed world — from the US to Qatar.
MWAC says it aims to not only inform the public but also to support migrant organizing, so that migrants can themselves fight for full permanent resident status for migrant agricultural workers.