Enforced Humility

Mexican migrant workers experience deplorable conditions on Canadian farms.

Enforced Humility

Salvador is a Mexican migrant laborer who works on a farm in southern Ontario. At first glance he is a small and unassuming man, but one conversation reveals that he is well-read, intelligent and speaks powerfully on world history, politics and philosophy. One day working beside him reveals a nearly unbelievable work ethic: he works at full speed all day every day.

Salvador told me about a farm he worked on in Manitoba. The Mexican workers were packaging vegetables one day and the boss’s dad (the retired farm owner) came in and starting kicking up a huge fuss about them being too selective with the quality of the vegetables: “Don’t throw that out,” “that’s perfectly ok,” etc. So they lowered the quality a little bit. A few days later, some of the orders got returned because the quality was too poor. The boss asked around wondering what had happened. An employee named Guillermo told him that the boss’s dad had instructed them to be more lenient with the selection. This got back to the dad, who pulled Guillermo into the lunchroom and beat the shit out of him. Guillermo did not fight back, and came out of the room with some serious damage to his face.

A few days later, Salvador was working out in the field. He was standing on a wagon that the boss was recklessly driving around and he fell off and broke his arm. Salvador was taken back to the bunkhouse, with no word about if or when he’d get to see a doctor. He sat waiting in agonizing pain with no access to painkillers. After four or five hours, he called the Mexican consulate, which is supposed to represent the interests of its compatriot workers. The consulate told him that he was there to work and instructed him not to cause any trouble. Salvador was incensed. He thought, “fuck this, we are being treated like animals out here, I’m calling the police.” And he did. He dialled 911 and asked for someone who spoke Spanish. He told them about his accident and lack of treatment. They said it didn’t sound like a criminal offence, but they could send an ambulance. He told them about Guillermo’s beating and messed up face. This was of more interest to them. They sent out a police cruiser and when the officers saw Guillermo and his bruises they arrested the boss’s dad. As sweet as this sight must have been, it was merely a temporary victory. Was there a trial? Was Guillermo’s testimony taken? No. Within a few days, both Guillermo and Salvador were back in Mexico. Guillermo swore to never return to this country. Salvador requested to switch to a different farm.

I spent the last four and a half months working and living with Mexican migrant farm workers on two farms in southern Ontario. Ten thousand Mexicans and over ten thousand other foreigners come to Canada each year to work on farms, in greenhouses and in food packaging plants. The story Salvador told me is not at all unusual, I heard many more like it.  

Before this summer, I didn’t even know that a migrant labor program existed. I didn’t know that workers are often provided inadequate housing, work in poor conditions and are frequently disrespected by their employers and other Canadians. I didn’t know that the rights guaranteed to Canadian workers are often glossed over and ignored in the case of foreign migrant workers and that despite paying the same taxes they are treated as an underclass.

But this is not my life. It was just my summer. I was merely an observer, a student. Conversation by conversation, I learned of the abuse, the horrendous conditions, the tyrannical bosses, the goals and dreams, the drive and determination, the unwavering positive outlook.

Mexican workers come to Canada for the incredible financial opportunity: daily wages can be as much as eight times higher than those in Mexico. Life for the poor in Mexico is somewhat desperate. The difficulty of creating better lives for their families is staggering – few can hope to give their kids a decent house, a good education, the opportunity to escape the hard-work/low-pay lives of their parents. In Mexico avenues out of this poverty simply do not exist. Canada is a way to get a leg up.

Mexicans also come because they are desperately needed. Many Canadian farms do not operate with Canadian labor. Farm work is incredibly unattractive to most Canadians: it is difficult, the hours are long and irregular and the pay is minimum wage. Furthermore, many of the benefits and rights that apply to all other workers in this country – overtime, holiday pay, paid breaks – do not apply to agricultural workers in many provinces. At most sizeable Canadian farms, Canadian workers probably hold managerial positions while temporary foreign workers do the labor. The way our economy and agriculture is set up, it would be impossible to grow our own food without migrant workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, Thailand and elsewhere. When you “buy Canadian” produce you are probably buying food grown in Canada by foreign migrant laborers.

The Mexican migrant labor program, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), is a joint venture between the Canadian and Mexican governments. It is attractive to Mexico for alleviating unemployment and underemployment and bringing in money from Canada. It is attractive to Canada for providing the farm labor we cannot get at home. Mexican workers are supposed to have the same rights and get the same benefits as Canadian workers, but this is far from the case. 

Workers are frequently accommodated in substandard housing. I heard many horror stories: a 20-man house with one bathroom, one refrigerator and one stove; group showers; ten-by-ten rooms housing four people; bathroom lines so long that men resort to showering with the garden hose; improvised housing with no insulation. According to the SAWP contract, the housing provided by employers must pass an inspection, but it is unclear who is performing these inspections and what criteria they are following.

Farm work is by nature unsafe. This is especially problematic when you are a migrant worker who is eager to please and extremely hesitant to raise concerns for fear of being reprimanded or repatriated. When workers get injured, the solution is often to ship them back to Mexico where they are supposed to be able to receive care paid for by their health insurance. In practice, it is often very difficult or near impossible to collect insurance payments in Mexico and certain treatments are difficult to access, such as dialysis for severe pesticide exposure. Despite the fact they pay for Canadian health care with their taxes, Mexican laborers usually end up receiving far inferior care to what they would get in Canada or no care at all. My coworker Mauricio expressed the sentiments of many Mexicans: “Here, no one is valuable. You get sick, they send you back to Mexico and send another burro [donkey] to replace you.” The reality is that migrant workers are often treated as worthless, faceless, exchangeable beasts of burden – expected to do what they’re told and be grateful for whatever they get. Except in the most rare scenarios, they are treated as units of labor rather than human beings. 

In order to return to the same farm each season, Mexican migrant workers must be “named” by their Canadian employers. If they’re not named, they can be placed on a different farm and it is not uncommon for unnamed workers to miss a season or two while the Mexican Ministry of Labor finds a placement. The naming process is the cloud that looms over the migrant worker’s every action. If a worker is not named he could miss a season or two, which could wreak havoc on his family’s finances. When he returns to work, there’s no telling what kind of farm he could end up at. The naming process means that if the worker finds himself in a tolerable situation, it is in his best interest to cause as little trouble as possible to the employer and to only draw attention to himself for being a good worker. Any other attention is dangerous and puts his family’s economic security at risk.  

A few years ago, my coworker Mauricio landed on a farm with a problematic supervisor. The supervisor would switch the workers’ hours around to suit his own erratic schedule. Some days they’d work normal hours and others they’d work 2 p.m. until 3 a.m – they were completely at the mercy of the supervisor. Mauricio made a complaint to the Mexican consulate, which did nothing of any consequence. Mauricio’s boss did, however, get wind of the complaint and began to drastically reduce Mauricio’s hours. The farmer did not request Mauricio the next year, and told other farmers in the area to avoid employing him since he was a “troublemaker” and too “political.” The message is clear: never complain. This condition bleeds into every aspect of migrant workers lives. Most are hesitant to complain about poor living conditions or even to ask for something broken in the house to be fixed. They generally do not express grievances. They are often reluctant to see the doctor – partially because they don’t want to lose the wages that they would earn during the trip, partially because they don’t want to cause a hassle. To stick out is to put your family at risk: You get insulted, you swallow it; you get beaten, you deal with it; you get assigned a dangerous job, you do it the best you can. The onus of providing for your family outweighs the right to refuse dangerous jobs.

The whole experience of being a migrant worker is one of enforced humility. When you come to Canada, you are no longer in control of your life, no longer the head of a household, no longer your own man. You are a servant whose entire life is in the hands of the employer. Many men come to Canada and are not even aware of where they are on a map. They live where they are told, work when they are told, do what they are told. They are stripped of all independence and privacy and often subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

A real tyrant ran one farm a coworker told me about. Some of his favourite catchphrases were: “What the fuck are you doing? You animals! This is kindergarteners’ work! If you don’t want to work, you can go back to Mexico!” One day the boss threw a tantrum and one worker couldn’t take it. He threw what he was carrying to the ground, cussed out the boss and said, “you do it.” The boss called a meeting with the worker and a translator and told the worker that he was getting a warning: One more slip-up and he’d be on the first plane back to Mexico. The next day, the boss heard that the worker had said he didn’t have the balls to send him back to Mexico. Two days later, the worker was gone. His peers were not surprised and almost seemed to blame the worker. He had essentially broken a cardinal rule of migrant labor: Do not draw unnecessary attention to yourself, and do not under any circumstances have any conflict with the boss.

Mexican workers experience poor conditions, racism and assaults on their dignity in Canada, but their treatment at the hands of the Mexican government is not much better. To most members of the Mexican consulate and the Mexican Ministry of Labor, the Mexicans who come to Canada are simpleminded, childlike men who need to be told what to do and should be scolded for doing otherwise. The standard response when a worker calls to complain to the consulate is: “Don’t cause trouble. You’ve come here to work, so work.” It doesn’t seem to matter what the complaint is: an untreated injury, abusive supervisors or unfair practices. Other men have told me of ministry officials saying “Now, don’t go get drunk in Canada. You’re going there to work. You are a representative of Mexico in Canada, so don’t embarrass us.” The message to the workers is clear: “It’s not about you. It’s about the farms. If you aren’t grateful for the crumbs you work for, you can get the hell out. We care about you only in writing. You are a mule and mules are replaceable.”

Mexican workers in Canada are almost completely without allies. One of their few friends is the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW), the national farm workers’ union. The UFCW is one of the few groups dedicated to fighting for migrant workers. They are in an incredibly difficult position, however, because it is so dangerous for migrant workers to even talk about unionizing. It is very common for unionizing workers not to be requested the next year, or even to be sent back to Mexico prematurely. The governments of Ontario and Alberta have taken the position that farm workers do not have the right to unionize.

During my time on the farms, I developed a deep respect and admiration for many of my Mexican coworkers. They are humble and diligent men for whom self-sacrifice in the interest of their families comes instinctively. My friend Jacobo had been working in Canada for three or four years to complete construction of his house. He was almost done when he found out that his sister’s child had cancer. Jacobo finished his house, gave it to his sister’s family and began working to complete her half-finished house. You get the sense that this was not a difficult decision for him. His sister needed the house more, so he gave it to her. Plain and simple. I got to know men who have been coming to Canada for 10, 15, 20 years, working little by little to improve their lives in Mexico. Some of their children are lawyers, doctors, scientists, veterinarians, teachers. Their hard work has paid off but they don’t brag, they just keep working. A lot of Canadians think that because the Mexicans keep coming back every year, there are no major problems with the SAWP program. I disagree – the treatment many of them get here is despicable. It is not good enough to treat foreign workers as second-class, to have one set of rights for Canadians and another for Mexicans.

Few people even know that tens of thousands of migrant workers come to Canada every year. They might buy Canadian food, but they probably don’t know that it is grown by Mexicans and Jamaicans and Guatemalans. They don’t know who or what is behind the tomatoes, apples, broccoli and onions. They don’t know that a government-managed program imports workers from foreign countries and allows them to be treated like cattle. They don’t know about living in converted barns with no insulation in October and November. They don’t know about the crowded bedrooms, the leaking roofs, the broken kitchen appliances. They don’t know about the 30-minute bike rides to find a payphone to call home, the disrespect and racism on the streets, in banks, in stores. They don’t know about Western Union employees washing their hands with Purell after dealing with each Mexican worker, the very Mexican workers who keep them open by sending 80 percent of their paychecks home every payday. They don’t know about supervisors constantly checking men’s work, telling them to go faster, do better, telling them they better shape up or get shipped back to Mexico. They don’t know about 60, 70, 80, even 90-hour weeks. They don’t know about the stress of being separated from family for months at a time, of being in an all-male, high-testosterone environment. They don’t know about rich people in Mercedes Benzes coming to Mexicans’ houses and accusing them of stealing car parts. They don’t know about coming to Canada to work your ass off only to be treated as a threat, a criminal, someone to be avoided. They don’t know how hard it is to try to learn a few phrases of English when you only have a 6th grade education, how intimidating it is to try to communicate in a foreign land and foreign tongue with people who often do not have the patience to understand.

Canadians are largely ignorant of this reality, but we implicitly support it by buying Canadian produce, by electing governments that perpetuate it and by remaining quiet and unaware. It’s time to learn what’s going on.

Edward Dunsworth