Inside the working conditions of migrant workers: Journal four

| March 2, 2012
View from the writer's bunk. Photo: Aylwin Lo

In light of the recent tragic incident involving the death of 10 migrant workers in Southern Ontario, I felt it was finally time to take the wraps off of a journal I kept during a two-week trip in early 2004 to investigate the conditions of undocumented Chinese migrant farm workers. I hope this can help shed light on the kinds of conditions faced every day by the people who tend, pick and process the food we eat.

This is the fourth in a series. See here for the first entry.

The families of the deceased and injured are very much in need of financial and logistical support. As such, a fund has been set up so that donations may be made to them. At the same time, a sustained, organized, well-informed effort is needed to prevent similar tragedies. Please consider supporting groups like Justice 4 Migrant Workers and joining migrant farm worker advocates in calling for greater accountability and compensation.

As soon as we receive word that we will be paid daily, we scramble to prepare for work. Because many of us will work off-site, we gather our lunches and water and don our winter clothes. I grab a leaf-wrapped ball of sticky rice bought in Toronto for just such a hurried occasion and join the rest of the workers leaving for other greenhouses.

After a cold, bumpy ride across frozen farmland, six of us arrive at the same greenhouse I'd worked at the day before. Only two of us are returning; the owner complained that some of my sexagenarian colleagues had been too slow. Obligingly, the contractor has swapped those workers out from our crew.

The greenhouse floor is covered with a thick white plastic. Steam pipes run along alternating rows, a popping noise echoing across the greenhouse as pipes fill with steam. We're warned to keep the plants from touching the pipes, but I slip on the wet plastic and bump into a pipe, receiving a slight burn.

By now, through late-night and break-time conversations, I've gotten to know my new workmates a bit. Two of them have been in Canada for about six months, before that working as engineers in China. Although they have permanent resident status, they can't get a job in their field because their credentials aren't recognized here. Talkative and easygoing, they could easily blend into the hallways of the university I just graduated from.

When I show them how to connect the cucumber seedlings to the fibreglass blocks that they grow in and to the tiny irrigation hoses, one of them, an electrical engineer, jokes, "Oh! I can use my education!"

Two of my other workmates have worked in greenhouses in this region before. Having had a good experience at a different greenhouse last year, they decided to return. One of the two is an older gentleman. Literate and calm, he settles easily into a father-figure-type role, sharing his wisdom and wit throughout the day. Since it's in Mandarin, I fail to catch most of it except when he or someone else slows down to explain the joke to me. He and his wife visit from China each year, working along the way to pay for their trip. His wife worked with him last year, but this year she's visiting their daughter in New York. His travelling companion is a young-looking woman who is actually in her 30s. She came to Canada last year with her husband, who was enrolled in the MBA program at York. He returned to China because he had better opportunities there, but she decided to remain in Toronto to work and earn her citizenship.

Together, the five of us form something of an interim family and bargaining unit. We share meals and make decisions on work together.

Another workmate, from Guangzhou, speaks Cantonese. She has been in Canada a little while longer, and her husband and children are in Toronto. As she speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, she can converse with all of us fairly well. However, she often seems too pensive to converse much.

For the next two days, our work crew stays stable. Because he and I converse in English, the greenhouse owner has made an effort to remember my name. He gets it a little wrong, however, but I decide not to correct him, instead adopting his adulteration of my name as a pseudonym. He calls everyone else "Lucky," as in, "HEY! LUCKY! GET OVER HERE!"

Impatient at our progress, he complains that my colleagues are slowed down by sitting on the trays they collect as they work. I am tempted again to interject, but hold my tongue. Having done the same work all day, I have the same urge to sit down -- and often do so -- but I'm more careful to not show it when the owner is nearby. Occasionally, I also try to numb the pain by standing up and pushing myself to work quickly. This proves an unwise tactic: it separates me from my workmates physically, broadening the divide already furnished by our language differences and my relative youth, legal status and class privilege.

Thankfully, the owner seems satisfied with merely complaining to me and stops just short of asking me to do something about it. He elaborates on his frustration, telling me that a Mexican crew would have finished the work in a day, rather than the three or four days it has taken us. I again mentally take stock of the differences in situation, considering whether anything I know is worth using in a rebuttal: for the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the governments of the sending countries pluck tens of thousands of their most able-bodied, young, agriculturally experienced, gung-ho male workers for the benefit of the Canadian farmer. They typically are married and have children at home they need to support. By contrast, our crew is well represented across gender and age and many of us are more accustomed to the kind of work one typically encounters in urban settings.

There are a few other workers here -- one is a 72-year-old Mexican Mennonite woman, against whom the greenhouse owner also makes a comparison: "They gotta keep up with her -- she's 72, and she don't even need ginseng!"

Two other local workers live on-site: one is an undocumented Mexican worker who arrived under the SAWP, but elected to stay here rather than returning at the end of his contract. The other is a Canadian who has moved from job to job. He has two divorces behind him, and tells me that he's been homeless from time to time.

Towards the end of my third day at this greenhouse, the owner tells me he's asked for all of us, except for me, to be replaced because my workmates haven't been working fast enough. The contractors, however, have no one left to rotate, and my work crew doesn't change. We continue arriving at 7:30 a.m., groping in the half-dark until the sun rises around 8. At 5 p.m., we call it a day and wait up to an hour for the contractors to pick us up in one of their unheated vans, returning us to the compound where we're kept. Then we brace for the daily fight for our wages.

It goes something like this: first we are docked a daily $3 accommodation fee -- something, I've learned, the greenhouse owner never sees. Then I learn that the contractors have decided they're going to bypass the logical challenge of doling several small daily amounts of cash to each worker by outsourcing the task. I'm going to be given the lump sum for my work crew: a few hundred dollars' worth of $50 bills for six people. This, of course, leaves me concerned -- if any of this goes missing, I'm on the hook.

Thankfully, no trouble passes. By Wednesday, we're tired of the trouble and when the contractor tells us that they're going back to weekly pay, no one objects: the daily cash fuss has tired us all out, and they've shown us that they at least have the funds to pay us.

I make a quick phone call home and shuffle off to bed. The room is already dark and while stuffing my toiletries into the bag under my bed I realize that the shadow of my sleeping bag is a bit larger than it should be. I give the shadow a poke. My hand is met with the resistance of a slumbering body and my nose is met with the stench of alcohol and cigarettes. One of the contractor's friends has passed out in my sleeping bag after a few nightcaps. Mildly irritated and unsure what else to do, I give my sleeping bag a tug and hiss in Cantonese: "Hey! You're sleeping in the wrong bed!"

Helped by a few more tugs, the friend gradually gets the picture and stumbles to another bed. Grateful to have regained my bed without a fight, I roll into it and quickly fall asleep despite the lingering stench of cigarette smoke.

Aylwin Lo (@aylwinlo) was a Labourer-Teacher with Frontier College in 2003, and an Into The Fields intern with Student Action with Farmworkers in 2006. He has volunteered with Justice for Migrant Workers and currently resides in Toronto, where he integrates varying combinations of technology, graphic design, and politics.

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