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Anyone living in Canada who tuned into TVO last night saw an eye-opening documentary called El Contrato. The film, directed by Min Sook Lee, follows Teodoro Bello Martinez, a poverty-stricken father of four from Central Mexico, and several of his countrymen as they make their annual migration to southern Ontario to work for eight months of the year as migrant labourers picking tomatoes -- in return for wages and working conditions that no locals will accept. Despite their fear of almost certain repercussions, the workers voice their desire not just for better working conditions, but for the simple dignity and respect that all human beings deserve.
Growers hire foreign workers under the government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which is administered by the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S) in Ontario (and by F.E.R.M.E. in Quebec, New Brunswick and P.E.I.). Because the growers monitor themselves, and because there is a long line of jobless men "back home" willing and eager to take the place of those in the program, the workers are as ripe for exploitation as the fruit they pick.
As the website Justicia for Migrant Workers details, there were almost 11,000 migrant workers from Mexico and almost 8,000 from the Carribean working in Canada in 2002. Nobody wants the migrant workers to stay in Canada, so only married men (and some single mothers) are allowed into the program. These people generally come from places where unemployment runs high, making the workers desperate to be accepted into the program even though it means spending eight months a year away from their families. More importantly, they are desperate to stay in it.
They are packed into substandard houses like sardines, forced to work gruelling 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week without overtime or holiday pay, and denied necessary breaks. They are exposed to dangerous chemicals/pesticides with no safety equipment/protection or training. They are provided with inadequate health attention and services. They are excluded from basic human rights legislation such as Health and Safety Legislation and most aspects of the Employment Standards Act. They are prohibited from collective bargaining and joining unions, and forming their own union is not a realistic option since they could easily be fired and replaced en masse. They are not allowed to claim residency or obtain educational opportunities for their children despite extensive years of work in Canada. They are not given access to basic ESL (English as a Second Language) training because they must work late into the evening and because they are first required to pass a tuberculosis test, which their employers will not help them with since they are only required to take them to a doctor is they are ill. They are also subjected to overt racism from townspeople in towns such as Leamington, sometimes resulting in physical altercations.
For all of this, they are paid $7.70 an hour minus Employment Insurance (EI) and Canada Pension Plan (CPP) deductions, which are taken from their paycheques despite the fact that they are not entitled to either of these government services themselves.
As the documentary revealed, they are often subjected to outright abuse in the workplace. One supervisor would constantly scream at them and even grabbed one worker by the throat. Phrases such as "they treat us worse than animals!" and references to slavery are commonly heard among the workers. If they complain to their employers, they run the risk of simply being expelled from the program. The Mexican Ministry of Labour and Social Planning seems to care more about the program than the workers, telling that workers who complain that this is how the system works and if they don't like it, they can choose to stay home.
As a paper (pdf document) by Tonya Basok of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies reveals, the migrant workers actually are entitled by law to many rights such as vacation pay, holiday pay, EI, CPP at age 65, but they to not exercise those rights because they are often unaware of their entitlements, they are fearful of being expelled from the program, and they do not speak English and so cannot follow the procedures required to receive their benefits even if they know what they are.
Canada has relied on migrant labour to literally build the nation. Chinese migrant workers built the national railroad. South Asian migrant workers tamed the fields of Western Canada. Today, migrant workers are indispensable in domestic work, construction and agriculture. But despite their importance, they have always been denied basic human rights and citizenship and remain the most marginalized labour force in Canada.
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Agriculture and horticulture workers, Natural resources, agriculture and related production occupations - general, and General farm workers
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Policy analysis, Documented cases of abuse, Statistics on work and life conditions, and Current Policy
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