Migrant Farm Workers: The Struggle Continues

By White, Ryan | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Migrant Farm Workers: The Struggle Continues

White, Ryan, Canadian Dimension

Early in the spring of 2001, a group of migrant farm workers from Mexico began a wildcat strike in one of the largest greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario--a small town near Windsor known as the tomato capital of Canada. The greenhouse owners moved swiftly, singling out 21 men who played key roles in organizing the strike and sending them back to their home countries. Soon, a local church had notified activists in Toronto, who organized a group to travel to Leamington to document the workers' struggles and provide support and solidarity. When the activists arrived in town, however, they realized that the problems facing migrant workers were hardly limited to one greenhouse in Leamington.

Stan Raper was a member of the group that made the first trip to Leamington and a coordinator with the Canadian office of the United Farm Workers of America at the time. "The problems that these workers were going through were more serious than we had originally thought," said Raper, "so we started to seriously travel across the province and document the plight of migrant workers and found basically the same thing--that the consulates weren't representing their workers because they were more worried about upholding contracts, that workers didn't know what deductions were being made from workers compensation or CPP or EI. They had no safety training and they were being exploited through the number of hours worked and the treatment of foreman and farmers."

In response to the glaring need for services and support, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) hired Raper as a full-time organizer and the union opened its first migrant-worker support centre in a church basement in Leamington, and began providing free training and safety-education courses, as well as ESL services and an occasional on-site legal clinic. The centre also provided workers with a space to combat their isolation within the community, as staff organized movie nights, barbecues and dinners. The centre was an immediate success and was quickly followed by similar projects in agricultural hot spots like Simcoe, Bradford, Virgil (near Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Remy, Quebec.

Not So Idyllic Conditions

Agriculture is big business in Ontario. It employs more than 83,000 workers and accounts for four per cent of Ontario's GDP. Despite romantic notions of small-town life and the important economic role played by agriculture, farm employees receive few of the benefits and rights that are afforded to most Canadian workers. Ontario's agricultural workers have no recognized right to collective bargaining, are prohibited from striking, and, until recently, were not protected under occupational health-and-safety regulations. As a result of such exclusions, farm workers have traditionally found themselves particularly vulnerable to unfair working conditions, a problem that often goes unnoticed by most Ontarians.

According to recent industry statistics, agricultural workers are paid almost half as much as those who work outside the industry and are forced to contend with hazardous pesticides and fertilizers, heavy machinery and long hours. Farm workers lose substantial time to workplace injuries and face occupational fatality rates among the highest in Canada.

To make matters worse, of those that work on Ontario's farms, a significant proportion are seasonal migrant labour and thus face specific challenges. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as cultural barriers and racism intersect with the different forms of marginalization--low pay, dangerous working conditions, political alienation and a profound sense of isolation from their surrounding communities--that already impact domestic farm workers. In an era of globalization, global inequality can be exploited by corporate leaders who take advantage of the desperation of those in marginalized communities within the Global South.

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