Leamington is at the frontlines of the boom in migrant workers. Here’s how it’s changed
Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Nicholas Keung, and Jim Rankin
Thousands of low-wage temporary farm workers from Mexico and the Caribbean have transformed Leamington.
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The Toronto Star
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LEAMINGTON, ONT.—On Friday evening, in the heart of this farming city, the workers arrive by bicycle and private bus.
Hundreds of labourers crowd the sidewalks, restaurants and shops in this municipality 50 kilometres southeast of Windsor, famous for its greenhouses and tomatoes.
It’s payday and at almost every turn the old city core is alive with bodies and chatter.
But these farm labourers are speaking Spanish and Patois.
Like many of Ontario’s downtowns, Leamington’s has seen better days. But the thousands of low-wage temporary farm workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, the work they provide and the money they spend here — Mayor John Paterson figures $15 million a year — have transformed the local economy.
Where Theresa’s Fashion once was is now Chica Linda, catering to workers looking to buy clothes to send home to family. Across the road, Mr. 2 Pizzas is now Crazy Chicken, where the menu is available in Spanish and features a cartoon sombrero-wearing bird rocking maracas, its fridge stocked with bottles of Mexican Jarritos soft drinks. Gino’s Restaurant and Wine Bar next door is now La Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant. Clubs offer salsa music and buckets of Corona and Caribbean vibe.
For the unfamiliar, it is jaw-dropping to behold. Yet transformation, like any change, can be simultaneously embraced and loathed.
While these migrant workers and their effects on the community are particularly obvious in Leamington, the racial tension between them and the locals is far from unique in a rural Canada increasingly reliant on the labour provided by the migrant worker program.
This is the story of one migrant worker town and how people are learning to get along. Mostly.
Dubbed the “Greenhouse Capital of North America,” Leamington is located on the 42nd parallel — the same latitude as northern California — and draws its agricultural strength from the amount of sunshine it gets and the fertile soil it’s blessed with.
Every day, some 200 tractor-trailers leave this municipality to deliver fresh produce — from its famous tomatoes to peppers, cucumbers, mushrooms and flowers — to destinations around the world.
Initially called Gainesville, the community was built by immigrants: first, the Scottish, German and Dutch, followed in the postwar era by Italians, Portuguese and Lebanese.
A shortage of labour has always been an issue for Leamington, as far back as Paterson, 63, who was born and raised here, can remember.
But what distinguishes the earlier waves of migrants from those coming now is that the former came as permanent residents, while the majority nowadays are guest workers — mostly lonely men separated from their families, with temporary status only.
More than 10 per cent of the 54,000 average migrant farm workers to Canada work in Leamington, accounting for one-sixth of the town’s population during the farming season.
The number of migrant farm workers in Leamington has surged in the last decade, mostly because of the exponential growth of the greenhouse operations here. Today, the town has more than 1,500 acres of greenhouses, with another 200 acres waiting for municipal approvals.
South of Hwy. 401, along Hwy. 77 are row after row of greenhouses, with new ones under construction. With a $60 million gas line completed earlier this year, the town hopes to finish its $80 million hydro line next June, along with a $7 million water system and a $40 million sewage system in order to meet the needs of more greenhouses in the next five years. Medical cannabis production companies are knocking on its doors.
Everywhere you go, you see hiring signs for general labour, pickers and packing staff at greenhouses. The jobs promise a minimum 48 hours of work a week.
“We don’t have enough people in Ontario that are willing to do that kind of labour or those kind of hours for that kind of pay,” said Paterson.
“I don’t think the greenhouse industry would exist if it wasn’t for the farm worker program. There just wouldn’t be the manpower to make it happen. The program is of ultimate importance.”
Leamington’s small businesses suffered from the price wars with the local Walmart when it opened in 1999 and were dealt another blow in 2008 during the economic meltdown when residents lost their auto manufacturing jobs at Windsor and Detroit and were forced to live on shoestring budgets.
Then Heinz, the town’s biggest employer, shut its processing plant in 2014, throwing more than 700 out of work. A reboot of the plant under new owners softened the blow, although its workers make less money.
Downtown shops sputtered, and then shuttered.
“You need to repair your shoes, and you could go to Walmart and get a new pair for $10,” said Sam Najim, whose family came from Lebanon decades ago, as Caribbean migrant patrons streamed into his Crazy Moe’s Café Bar on a recent Saturday night.
Farms were able to continue to operate because of migrant workers’ labour, allowing locals to keep their higher-class jobs in management, sale and procurements, he said.
“Everybody benefits. They work hard and we need to give them the respect,” said Najim, 29, whose girlfriend is Mexican, as music blasted out on an otherwise quiet street with few passersby. “We are a small Toronto. We are a melting pot.”
Which sometimes bubbles over.
In Leamington, locals avoid shopping on Wednesdays and Fridays, paydays for the workers, and Sundays, when workers get time off and crowd stores.
People “congregating” in public spaces has made some people, unused to seeing such a thing, jittery. Hot issues at city hall include loitering and what to do about all the bicycles in a place with no transit, no bike lanes and few bike racks.
The inability to build bunkhouses fast enough to meet the growing numbers of workers means some are housed in residential areas, turning old homes into, essentially, rooming houses.
Add to that the temporary nature of the workers — nearly all are unable to ever become permanent residents — and the fact that all of them are racialized, mostly male, from unfamiliar cultures and away from their families for long stretches of time.
“You take your regular population of about 30,000 and add in 5,000 to 7,000 of temporary residents. You have your language barriers,” said Paterson. “You have your cultural barriers, and even space barriers that create challenges for all of us to deal with.”
The mayor himself has weathered controversies over comments he’s made about multiculturalism and the behaviour of what he believed to be Jamaican migrant workers who, in 2013, made “lewd” comments to his daughter “in reference to her body parts.” He told a police board meeting back then that some Jamaican workers were making inappropriate comments to women in general.
In response, Justicia for Migrant Workers sent a sharply worded open letter to the mayor, saying “the open hostility that your council has shown towards migrant workers represents the most blatant displays of anti-migrant sentiments we have ever witnessed.”
The group said his “remarks pertaining to ‘lewd behaviour’ of migrant workers cannot be taken in good faith. Instead of dealing with sexual harassment on an individual basis, you skip right to racialized stereotypes; drawing from some of the worst parts of Canadian history.”
The advocacy group cited worker complaints that racism and sexism continue to be part of their daily lives in Leamington. “It does not escape us,” the letter read, “that the community of Leamington once supported ‘sundown laws’ which made it illegal for Black Canadians to walk freely in the community after sunset.”
Jamaica, a beneficiary of worker remittances, flew in government officials to do damage control, according to media reports in late 2013. “They’ve assured us they will do and want to do anything to help us,” Paterson was quoted as saying at the time by the Windsor Star.
Federal temporary foreign worker data shows the number of positions approved for Jamaican workers has declined from 12,034 in 2013, to 9,929 in 2016, while, overall, the demand for farm workers has increased.
Some in Leamington say they’ve noticed fewer Jamaican workers in recent years, and more Mexicans, reflecting a national trend. Mexico is the number one source country for migrant workers.
On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon, steps away from a giant tomato where Leamington tourism staff disseminate brochures and free national park passes, Chris Ramsaroop passes out flyers to migrant workers to educate them about their workers’ rights in Canada.
Ramsaroop has been doing advocacy work in Leamington for Justicia for Migrant Workers for more than a decade and says interactions between locals and migrants here are based on stereotypes and discrimination.
“The only thing they want are their hands and their bodies to make a profit,” said Ramsaroop.
The latest battleground, says Ramsaroop, is over loitering.
Paterson, the mayor, says the community had to deal with cultural tensions with earlier waves of immigrants, who were primarily Europeans.
“Their culture was to gather on the streets and stand around and occupy space and talk and socialize. Eventually they melted into the community. We all assimilated, for the lack of a better word. That issue just dissipated,” he said.
“Now, with the temporary agricultural workers that are here, that is more different. They don’t really have homes to go back to. They have bunkhouses and rooming areas to go to once they have done their socializing. That’s what the current problem is. People see the number of them congregating. Some people get nervous.”
Locals who spoke to the Star shared observations and comments similar to the mayor’s.
Leon Ferguson, a worker from Jamaica, said paydays and weekends are the only time the farm workers get a relief from their backbreaking jobs.
“The bunkers are very boring. There are too many guys in the bunkers, and no entertainment. It is where you sleep,” said the 40-year-old, who joined the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in 2015.
“Guys need to go to town, clubbing or have a beer. That’s why we work so hard. They need to socialize with other people. Some of these guys have been here eight, 10 and 14 years. They don’t socialize, just work. They need to know what Canada is about.”
Dave Bretzlaff, a pastor at the South Point Community Church just outside downtown Leamington, has noticed the cultural disconnect between Canadians and the workers. That’s why he and his congregation try to build bridges with the migrant community through their services and social events such as a recent barbecue.
He said a lot of people in Leamington may not appreciate how hard life is for migrant workers being away from their families and living in isolation in rural Canada, especially among those who don’t speak English.
“We need to find a way to empower them while they are here,” said Bretzlaff. “If you keep uprooting, nothing is going to grow in a healthy way.”
Joan Golding, a member of the congregation and a Jamaican-Canadian, founded a support group for Caribbean workers called Unity Hopeful, which provides clothing and information on Canadian culture. She organizes feasts and celebrations around Jamaican Independence Day.
“They’re coming into a country where they don’t know anyone, they’re very lonely, in many ways,” said Golding, after prepping a meal of jerk chicken and rice for workers on a farm outside Leamington. “We just put this program on to make them feel at home away from home, just to let them know that we do care that they’re here to do this job.”
She says some people are accepting of the workers, and some aren’t.
“These workers come here and they work hard, extremely hard,” said Golding. “And we should be there for them to support them in whatever way we can because the work they are doing, a lot of us don’t want to do it.”
It’s dusk on a Friday evening in August in downtown Leamington, and people, mostly migrant workers, are walking — and talking — freely.
Set up at the corner of Talbot and Erie Sts. are preachers and missionaries, including Sebastian Aguirre, 34, a Jehovah’s Witness from Windsor who also works in Leamington for Abell Pest Control, checking migrant worker bunkhouses and greenhouses for any signs of vermin and pests. He also works closely with a locally based Mexican Consulate, which hands out awards to top greenhouse employers.
Originally from Argentina and fluent in Spanish, Aguirre moved to the area a year and a half ago with his wife, after spending most of his life in Toronto. What he saw in Leamington was a pleasant surprise, but difficult to describe.
“It’s a very weird place,” he said. “I thought I was back at home (in Argentina). I can speak Spanish, order food in Spanish. I never thought this place existed in Ontario. I feel like I’m in Latin America, to be honest with you.”
Aguirre said he sees little interaction between locals and the workers, but “I feel there’s a sense of gratitude because they’re here, because, realistically, the Canadian culture, they won’t do this kind of work.”
When workers open up to him, he hears of the difficulties of being away from family.
“When I go into bunkhouses, you can just see a room plastered with pictures of their family,” he said. “Some are here for three months and they find it so hard to be away from the family that they actually cut the contract and they go back home.”
Another problem, he says, is that there’s very little for the workers to do in Leamington, aside from a small movie theatre and a bowling alley, which requires a car to get to. Unwinding downtown, or “congregating” as some see it, is only natural, says Aguirre.
“If you look at the conditions these people work in, they’re in the greenhouses for 16 hours and add to the working conditions — the heat — it’s pretty tough,” said Aguirre. “So when I see them here, it’s kind of like their time to detox, have a taco and just chill with the guys.”
At El Aguila (“The Eagle”), a convenience store, the shelves are filled with imported food and spices from Latin America, including La Morena brand mayonnaise with lime and chipotle, tough to find elsewhere.
“The workers miss their food at home,” said owner Efrain Sanchez, who first came to Leamington 17 years ago from Mexico under the SAWP. He opened the store in 2015 after he was promoted by his employer to management and became one of a few migrant farm workers who qualified to apply for permanent residence.
Like other ethnic businesses, El Aguila offers money transfer services and is jammed on pay days by workers sending money to their families back home.
“Winter is quiet when all the workers go home. We have very few Canadian customers here,” said Sanchez.
Vicki Bowden, one of the few Leamington natives strolling downtown one Saturday afternoon, says there was a time when some locals would cross the road to avoid walking past ethnic stores because they felt intimidated by the migrants gathering on the street. Now, those same locals are shopping in those stores, she said.
“This is the norm now. The odd man out is the blue-eyed, blond-hair boy. You get along or be miserable,” said Bowden, who works as a supervisor at a local farm and sometimes offers English classes to her migrant colleagues at her home.
She said there were serious problems when the migrant workers first started coming and “there’s a really, really long way to go, but it’s been a big change, which is nice …”
But there still needs to be more acceptance of each other, Bowden said, because the workers are vital.
“Without them, Leamington would be a ghost town. That is what’s keeping this town going.”
At Gaspard’s Café, near the Pelee Island ferry terminal, Joe Gaspard, who opened the café in the 1970s, is a picture postcard of what built Canada.
Born in Beirut, Gaspard had an uncle who spent $10,000 to sponsor him to come to Leamington in 1948. He was 17, and worked first on farms and then as a butcher before finding jobs at the Chrysler and Ford plants.
People back home said you could make money so fast in Canada that you could get rich overnight,” said the soft-spoken 86-year-old, leaning on a table at the café.
Of course, the reality was somewhat different. Life wasn’t easy at the beginning because of a language barrier. But jobs were plentiful.
Now retired, Gaspard lives above the restaurant, which is run by his four daughters, with the occasional help from his grandchildren.
In Leamington, there are jobs everywhere, he says. “If you want to work, and work hard, you can make money.”
But when it comes to the farms and greenhouse, he said, “migrant workers get the work done.”
Living in Leamington
Land area: 31.7 sq. km
People from 15 to 64 years: 20,200 or 61.2%
People over 65: 7,195 or 21.8%
Average age of population: 42.9
Total visible minority population: 10.3%
Latin American: 4.9%
Southeast Asian: 1%
Source: 2016 Canada Census
Leamington is at the frontlines of the boom in migrant workers. Here’s how it’s changed (https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/migrants/2017/10/09/leamington-is-at-the-frontlines-of-the-boom-in-migrant-workers-heres-how-its-changed.html)
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Agriculture and horticulture workers
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Statistics on work and life conditions, Current Policy, and Numbers of migrant workers
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Ontario, Quebec, Federal, and National relevance