WEB ONLY: Migrant workers’ lives – A harvest of shame

Last’s year’s October har­vest moon was one I will never forget.

It was a witness that night when I had to pick up Laura (a pseudonym) at the apple farm with two police officers. We left the farm in such haste that Laura’s belongings were scat­tered throughout various plastic bags. It was a rescue mission more reminiscent of a crime scene.

She could not leave without lovingly saying goodbye to each of the women with whom she had shared that awful cram­med bunkhouse. When she was ready, she turned to me and said, “Let’s go.”

We walked together, Laura on crutches with much pain, tears flowing down her face, tears that quickly became con­tagious.

The tall, white, male police officers were shocked. They had no clue that migrant wo­men lived and worked in their community, let alone what some had to go through to earn a living producing food that ended up on our kitchen tables. One of the officers confessed, “Apples are never going to taste the same again.”

Laura’s crime was to have been injured at work. She lost her balance, fell off the tractor, and her legs were crushed by its wheels. As soon as she re­gained consciousness after her first surgery, an official from the Mexican consulate in Tor­onto started harassing her. She was pressured to sign forms that would withdraw her rights to treatment and benefits in Can­ada and return her im­mediately to her rural village in the state of Puebla.

That way her employer would not incur increases in Workers Compensation premi­ums. The plan was to send her back to Mexico as soon as possible, essentially discarding her.

We advised her differently – of her right to lost wages and to treatment in Canada. Earlier that night, the employer had waited for me and my travel com­panion. Clearly inebriated, he violently lunged at us, threatened me and physically as­saulted my companion. He told us that he was the boss and he decides what is done or not done with his workers.

The only way to ensure Laura would not be repatriated against her will was to remove her from the farm. Since it was private property, the only way we could do that was with the police.

This was the same farm where, two years ago, another group of migrant women had fought back against the em­ployer’s insistence they could not leave the premises after work – not even for a walk down the road.

Those stories are a part of a hidden reality among migrant women who work in rural Ontario through temporary visa permits. Most work through the Seasonal Agri­cultural Workers Program, where men signi­fi­cantly outnumber women work­ers. With few contracts for women, women seek to protect their place in the program because they are dependent on the wages to sustain them­selves, their children, and their families back in rural Mexico.

Most dream of their child­ren rising out of poverty through better education. Some­times women migrate, too, to escape violence, only to find it again in a different con­text with other actors, such as their employers, consulate offi­cials, and sometimes even co-workers.

Many times women prefer to endure inhumane living condi­tions, abusive treatment, and dangerous working condi­tions in order to keep this dream alive.

It is well documented that migration is part of many household survival strategies Mexican women have had to undertake, not only to the U.S. but also into Canada. Less is known about those experiences in Canada, a country known for its respect for human rights, but like many other Western economies increasingly reliant on migrant labour as a form of cheap, flexible, and subservient labour.

Migrant labour has indeed become a structural necessity for the agricultural industry in Canada. Their poverty is capi­taliz­ed upon by employers. Poverty among women be­com­e­s a disciplining factor for lab­our control that makes avail­able workers willing to work for less money – and with no rights.

Time and time again women of the program confess that migration to Canada is like a trap. Even though they may want to stop migrating they can­not because wages in Mex­ico keep them impoverished. Since most of the women are lone mothers, women find no other choice than to leave their children for months a time in order to provide for their basic needs. 

Rural Women Making Change and Justicia for Migrant Workers have worked with local service providers to respond to migrant women’s spe­cific needs in rural com­munities. But most government funded agencies and commu­nity centres do not have the man­date to service migrant women – our research and docu­mentation of the vulnera­bilities women face often fall on deaf ears.

In many instances employ­ers respond by punishing wo­men by not hiring them at all instead of being responsive to their needs as human beings. 

That night at the farm I realized how terrified women were of their employer – and of losing their contracts. When the employer was yelling and berat­ing us, two women looked on from afar. Paralyzed by fear, they could not do a thing. I re­alized that a collective for the rights of migrant workers can­not solely be about workers rights but also for life and dignity. I have heard this many times before among Maquila women workers in Mexico and Central America but that night this message was all the more urgent and tangible.

We have to create and sup­port humane forms of generat­ing a living so that we truly engage in the global project to eradicate poverty.

Evelyn Encalada Grez is a researcher with Rural Women Making Change, and is co-founder of Justicia for Migrant Workers.