An anti-union environment and the threat of repatriation make life difficult
for Quebec's Mexican agricultural workers.
- Newspaper title
It is a summer afternoon on a farm near St-Rémi, a half hour drive from
Montreal, and columns of hunching Mexican workers trudge along rows of
onions to harvest the crop. They pause when this correspondent and a
photographer show up to snap pictures. Two forewomen, young Quebecers both,
look on amusedly for a few minutes before shooing us away. This would be
another summer of diminishing returns for Quebec farmers, and of defiance
from some of their Mexican workers.
The returns of farming in Quebec are as fickle as the weather here, and this
year farmers began the season with growing debt and news that the federal
government wouldn't meet its promises of assistance. At le Légumière, a farm
close to St-Rémi, the boss had another surprise as the summer ended, when he
approached three Mexican workers who were organizing to become the first
unionized migrant Mexican farm workers in the province and told them they
would be sent back to Mexico the next day. One of the workers, Bonifacio
Santos, never boarded the plane, opting to challenge the repatriation before
the Quebec Labour Relations Commission. The Commission awarded him an
injunction and will consider this week a motion filed by United Food and
Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada arguing for the migrant workers' right to
join a union.
Devil may care
The owners of le Légumière refuse to comment on the case and their lawyer
didn't return calls from the Mirror. Santos claims that, ever since he was
reinstated, the boss has taken to insulting him before other workers,
referring to him as "the devil."
"'Where is the devil?', the boss asks when I'm not around,"
Santos says, shrugging his shoulders. "When he approached me to send me
back, he said there wasn't enough work, and that was good enough reason. But
he's never done that before. The way they repatriate us is unjust, and I
want to say: 'No, this is not right." Over the summer, Santos had gone on
St-Rémi's radio station asking for better conditions for the estimated 4,000
migrant workers who came to Quebec this year˜3,000 from Mexico, and others
from Guatemala and the Caribbean.
Some 150,000 Mexican workers, many from farming communities in the Mexican
states of Morelos and Pueblo, have come and gone on a seasonal agricultural
workers' agreement between the Canadian and Mexican governments since it
began 32 years ago, says the Mexican consulate in Montreal. The workers,
most family men, some teenagers and some well into retirement age, might
work every day of the week at the height of the season, making enough money
to cover their debts in Mexico (many workers, especially the newcomers to
the program, come saddled with debt) and to send remittances to their
Santos is sitting behind a large table in the meeting room of the radio
station, which the UFCW organizers have turned into a makeshift office for
the evening. The radio station is across a parking lot from a Provigo. Every
Thursday and Sunday, buses bring in Mexican workers from their lodging on
surrounding farms to shop at the Provigo, and the workers, dressed in their
finest shirts, then stroll out into the lot pushing carts of bread, milk,
chips and hot dogs. Every Thursday and Sunday, the union organizers hand out
leaflets and go through paperwork brought to them by workers. This evening,
two UFCW organizers sit at the end of the table labouring through a thicket
of tax and medical forms, surrounded by tired looking workers. All comes to
a standstill when Santos, a charismatic man in his 30s who holds the respect
of the other workers in the room, thumps the table when asked why migrant
workers need to unionize.
"[The people at the Mexican consulate] are a bunch of liars," Santos says.
"Workers aren't content if they're tempted to unionize. Ask the consulate
how many ill workers they sent back without support or benefits. Ask them
how many times they have visited the farms to see the conditions of the
Negotiation without representation
Fernando Borja, the Mexican consular official stationed in Montreal to
oversee the migrant labour program, says most workers are happy with their
conditions. "The Ministry of Labour in Mexico took a poll of workers in
Mexico, and 91.2 per cent say they're happy," according to Borja. However, a
2003 poll conducted in Mexico by the North South Institute suggests 60
percent of surveyed workers supported unionizing in Quebec.
Borja says the Mexican government constantly negotiates the contract with
the Canadian government, increasing their wages over the years to $8.50 an
hour. When a farm boss has a problem with a worker and wants to repatriate
him, Borja is the person whom an employer should approach. He says the
consulate takes no sides in these conflicts. "We don't make decisions based
on accounts from employees," he says. But, "We also talk to the worker to
see who's saying what."
However, Borja says the first time he heard of Santos's case was when he
learned Santos hadn't boarded the plane back to Mexico. In that case, he
wasn't approached, he says, because Santos was being sent home on grounds of
lack of work, and he has learned the details from Santos's lawyers. "It
wasn't a repatriation per se," he says. "But apparently he was the one doing
In the summer, another worker was repatriated shortly after he complained
about his conditions in a radio interview, UFCW organizers say. Borja says
he hasn't heard of that case, nor of the worker who was sent back after it
was discovered he had developed a hernia while in Quebec, according to the
Borja refuses to take a position on unionizing, although he says, "If the
Canadian government decides this is too much trouble, that the workers are
not happy, that could be bad for the workers."
The UFCW says it has to intervene. "I've never in my life seen a contract
negotiated without the involvement of workers," says Louis Bolduc, assistant
director of UFCW Canada. "These people have a right to be represented and to
join a union. Most farmers are good employers. But some others, they treat
the workers as garbage." UFCW organizers and workers who spoke to the Mirror
say many of them don't trust the Mexican consulate, which they accuse of
usually siding with the bosses, and workers face problems that remain
outstanding and ignored. "The migrant workers want to see the contracts
respected, have proper wages and housing should be respectable," says
Bolduc. "Sometimes the workers are sent to the field an hour after the
chemicals are placed," he claims.
René Mantha, who heads Foundation of Companies for the Recruitment of
Foreign Labour, an association of more than 300 farms in Quebec that hire
migrant labour, says unionizing workers threatens Quebec agriculture by
increasing production costs. "There are no unions in agriculture elsewhere,"
he says. "How can we compete?"
Mantha says he was surprised to hear Mexican workers were calling for a
union. "These workers have good conditions," he says. "They're paid more
than minimum wage, they come back every year. No one forces them to come
back." Quebec farms need the migrant workers because, "There are no
Canadians available to do this job," he says. "They have the choice to do
something else. We can't force anybody to work in agriculture. "I don't
think consumers are preoccupied by these questions," he says. "They're
looking for the cheapest price."
Migrants back and forth (http://www.montrealmirror.com/2006/102606/news1.html)
- Economic sectors
Agriculture and horticulture workers
- Content types
Documented cases of abuse
- Target groups
- Geographical focuses
México and Quebec
- Spheres of activity