As you drive to your cottage, you may see them toiling in the hot summer fields. They wear the turbans of India, the shawls of Pakistan, the broad straw hats of Latin America and the bandanas of the Caribbean. They are the foreign migrant agricultural workers, who each year come here to plant and pick the fruits and vegetables that make Canadians one of the best-fed peoples on earth.
They work the land; they are treated like dirt. That, at least, is the view of advocacy organizations such as the United Farm and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA), Kairos Canada and Justicia for Migrant Workers (j4MW). These groups are advocating for better treatment for these labourers, who, for decades, may spend eight or nine months in Canada separated from their families with no hope of attaining permanent status. As those who come for the spring and summer outdoor growing season are shipped back to their homelands, another shift arrives to work the winter greenhouse months.
Either way, say advocacy groups, they face exploitative working conditions, substandard accommodation and limited access to transportation, social services and health care. “Often you’ll see six or eight workers sleeping in a room meant for two,” says Alfredo Barahona, Kairos Canada’s Toronto-based program coordinator for refugee and migrant justice, who has seen workers’ accommodation up close and first-hand. “They may get transportation to a town just once a week to buy their food.”
But for Barahona, the biggest injustice faced by these migrant workers is separation from their families for the greater part of the year. He wants to see provision made for bringing their families to Canada for the working season.
The AWA is another organization advocating for the people who put fresh produce on our tables. In July, it sponsored a barbecue and information event for migrant workers and later a health fair, both held in the southern Ontario town of Virgil in the heart of the grape-growing Niagara Peninsula.
And speaking of grapes, recently two dozen migrant farm workers attended a performance of The Grapes of Wrath at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. The play is an adaption of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel depicting the abuse faced by U.S. migrant farm workers in the Great Depression-hardships not so different from those faced by today’s migrant workers, as several of them remarked after watching the play with the help of translators.
The Stratford Festival invited UFCW Canada and the AWA to distribute their 2010−2011 Status Report on Migrant Farm Workers in Canada as part of an educational kit being given to Ontario students attending the production.
Some local churches host barbecues or Thanksgiving dinners for migrant workers or provide volunteer drivers to take them into town, says Barahona. But it’s clear that churches and community groups could be doing more. Here are his suggestions for doing more:
• Get together with members of other denominations and conduct ecumenical visits to migrant workers.
• Ask your local priest/minister to host a migrant justice Sunday. The Sunday service could be dedicated to the issue of migrant workers with an after-service social with migrant workers.