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Journal article

Gender transformative odysseys: Tracing the experiences of transnational migrant women in rural Canada




Kerry Preibisch


The SAWP operates in nine Canadian provinces, but over 80 per cent of workers are concentrated in Ontario. Although the SAWP is carried out under the federal Immigration Refugee and Protection Act and Regulations and implemented within bilateral frameworks of agreement between Canada and the labour source countries,4 it is governed by provincial statutes with regard to employment standards, labour and health (Verma). Since it is illegal in the province of Ontario for agricultural workers to unionize, the vast majority of Canada's SAWP workers are thus unable to seek the support of labour leaders to represent them before their employers. They are able, however, to contact home country designates, but worker assessments of their representatives have been less than favourable, if not damning (Basok; Binford; [Kerry Preibisch] 2000, 2003; [Verduzco Igartua]). While this may suggest incompetence, labour supply countries are limited in their capacity to represent workers' interests by the very structure of the SAWP that allows employers to choose, on an annual basis, the countries that will supply them with labour, a privilege that disempowers the participating labour-exporting states and leads to heavy competition between them to deliver productive, disciplined workers (Preibisch 2004). Within the current global economy, remittances represent an integral source of foreign exchange for all labour supply countries in the SAWP. Further, women cited that the key difference in men's and women's experience was that migrant men leave their children in the care of their wives, while women must leave their children with their mothers, female kin, a neighbour, or at times, an older sibling. Leaving their children engendered significant emotional strain for both men and women. An estimated 40 per cent of Mexican workers spend a larger part of the year working in Canada than in their home communities (FARMS). While all workers spoke of the pain of family separation, women's experiences were perhaps more acute considering that to some degree within all classes in Mexico, and especially in low-income groups, motherhood is the assumed primary adult gender role and carries enormous symbolic power (Logan). While for men, engaging in transnational livelihoods means fulfilling their primary gender role as breadwinners, for women it implies deserting theirs, as it has been traditionally defined. One woman felt that she has not been "a 100 per cent mom" to her child. Another stated that "I've always told myself that my first responsibility is my children, and in that sense I feel that I am not fulfilling it because I'm not with them. This depresses me." Community groups and health professionals working with the migrant community reported high rates of mental health issues, particularly among women (Preibisch 2003). While in most rural Mexican communities, women face rigid social barriers to leaving their localities unattended or talking to men other than their husbands, women exercising transnational livelihoods in Canada get on a plane, travel thousands of kilometres, and spend eight months unattended and unsupervised. As mentioned, women's decisions to work in Canada were often met with resistance by their families, including one woman's brothers who accused her of abandoning her children. Mexican men and women's own families are not alone in seeking to control women and their sexuality; employers also actively do so. For example, some employers abuse a provision in the SAWP allowing them to set down "farm rules" outlining care of the property and the use of amenities by including rules that forbid female workers to leave the farm, prohibit visitors of the opposite sex, or establish a curfew. These measures work to reduce non-citizen migrants' social commitments and further discipline the workforce.

Journal title

Canadian Woman Studies



File Attachments


Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers and General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Policy analysis and Statistics on work and life conditions

Target groups


Geographical focuses

Federal, Regional relevance, Regional relevance, Regional relevance, and National relevance

Spheres of activity

Agriculture, Gender and sexuality studies, and Sociology