Migrant farmworkers trapped in a system indifferent to their abuse

Migrant farmworkers Erica Zavala and Jesus Molina deported to Mexico

MIGRANT FARMWORKERS IN CANADA FACE A FEARSOME CHOICE. Stay silent and suffer. Speak up and suffer. There seems to be no end to the ritual humiliation and cruelty they are forced to endure. None of it is secret.

It is all well documented in hundreds of books, magazines, television and film documentaries and exposés. And yet, the torture never stops. Every week brings fresh reports of appalling indignities and inhuman treatment of the people we need to save us from massive crop failures.

Secret video exposes dark reality

Workers at Crazy Cherry Fruit Co. farm in B.C. dared to speak out. They shot a video of their daily reality in mid-July and released it to the CBC, on condition the CBC conceal their identity to protect them from reprisals by their employer.

In the video, a worker shows how he lives in a tiny space within arms-reach of three other workers—including one who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Here are the black garbage bags full of the things he left because he became infected,” the man says in Spanish. “So barely a metre from [another bed]. It’s hard to believe we just keep living here.”

“The wall that divides us from the other room where I sleep is this blanket,” adds the worker. “It divides us from the other workers from the other room. And the rooms here are all like this.”

Four people connected to the farm tested positive for the virus. B.C. Interior Health, issued an order on July 13 stopping 36 migrant workers and nine additional individuals on the farm from leaving the property. Farm work continues, however.

Sick workers hidden away, left hungry

CBC also spoke with a Krazy Cherry migrant worker who is in isolation after contracting COVID-19.

The worker said he felt like he was being “hidden” by a farm manager after being diagnosed with COVID-19, first left to wait alone in a parking lot for 90 minutes and then put into isolation in a trailer that he had to clean himself.

“My boss was not kind,” he said. “He seemed annoyed about bringing me food. And he kept yelling at me to clean the trailer, as if I didn’t know that I had to do so.”

“It seemed as if my boss did not want the other workers to know that I was in the trailer and in this situation,” he said.

The worker says an official from Interior Health had him moved to a motel.

Workers also ran low on food because they were prohibited from going shopping. The video shows an almost empty fridge. A worker says:“As you can see we don’t have fresh food. A few days ago we told the boss. Two days ago, we made a list and up until now he still hasn’t brought any food.”

Migrant workers rights mostly non-existant

The temporary foreign worker program is run by the federal government. It links a worker’s right to remain in Canada to having a job with a specific employer. This gives employers the virtual power of life and death over the workers. Any worker who demands his or her rights risks getting fired. Workers without jobs are automatically deported.

This was the fate of Erica Zavala and Jesus Molina, a Mexican couple who came to find work in Canada before the coronavirus pandemic erupted. They found work at the Bylands plant nursery near Kelowna, BC, in late May. The two workers were told they were not allowed to have visitors at their accommodation or leave the farm.

The same restrictions were not placed on Canadian workers.

The couple invited two workers from Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) over to their employer-provided housing. They brought Erica and Jesus work clothes as well as Mexican food and snacks that weren’t being provided by Bylands. Erica and Jesus say they cleared the visit with their supervisor.

However, just days later, their boss called the couple into his office and presented them with a letter telling them they had broken the no visitors rule. They were fired and immediately sent back to Mexico.

RAMA condemned the action: “These racist and discriminatory actions violate the human rights of these essential workers and is detrimental to their health and wellbeing as well as that of the local communities as they erect barriers for workers to report symptoms directly to health care personnel and access supports from local communities.”

Migrant workers suffer in silence

The federal government, has totally failed to maintain oversight of the highly-profitable agricultural sector. A recent report in the Globe and Mail revealed that in the initial stages of the pandemic, the federal government suspended all on-site housing inspections for up to six weeks and permitted employers to hire migrant workers with housing reports that were three years out of date.

The open mistreatment of migrant workers is hard to explain given the importance of Canada’s agricultural sector. Agricultural businesses contribute $110 billion annually to Canada’s gross domestic product—more than the gross national product of two thirds of the world’s countries. Horticulture, including vegetable and fruit production, generates a whopping $6.7 billion in farm cash receipts for Canadas every year.

The bitter reality is that this important industry depends on the brutal exploitation of low-wage workers condemned to suffer in silence or be sent home. The coronavirus pandemic has merely shed a brighter light on the inhuman treatment of migrant workers that any civilised society would have changed long ago.

- 30 -

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.