Creating a new vision for migrant worker health care

Image: Flickr/breadfortheworld

This is the first instalment a two-part series about migrant farm worker experiences in the Niagara region.

For the past nine years, hundreds of migrant farmworkers have been coming together in southern Ontario for a Migrant Worker Summer Festival. The festival provides food, music and entertainment, but it is also an information fair that provides migrant workers access to health services, legal counsel, and health and safety training, as well as important information on labour rights and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. 

These festivals are organized by the Niagara Migrant Worker Interest Group (NMWIG), whose objective is to coordinate the efforts of individuals and organizations in Niagara who provide services and support to seasonal migrant workers. The coalition was formed in 2010 and receives no governmental funding. It works entirely on agency contributions, donations and volunteer labour.

This year, about 300 migrant farm workers and community members attended the event on June 5. I spoke with volunteers and two workers at the festival, who talked about their experiences and vision(s) to provide migrant farm workers with access to adequate health-care services.

Migrant worker experiences: Carlos and Pedro

Two migrant farm workers spoke with me at length about the impact of accumulated stress and tension on their mental and physical health. A contributing factor in both of these cases was pressure and neglect from their respective employers. 

Fifty-six year old Carlos from La Paz, Mexico, has worked on Canadian farms for 10 years. The following are his words, translated by me.

Carlos: "Mexico recruits migrant workers have very little formal education. This allows Canadian employers to maintain control over us. They take advantage of us because of our limited English language abilities and our lack of reading skills. The contract between Canada and Mexico is not respected and some of us can't even read it. The reason why we come to Canada is because our countries are corrupt and we are desperate to find work.  We will sign anything to be able to work to provide for our families. To be honest, we are scared to go to the doctor when we are sick because we fear being sent back home and not being asked to come back to work in Canada."

Humiliation and neglect from Carlos' employers in Canada have caused him to experience increased levels of stress and anxiety.

Carlos: "Employers are impatient with us. They expect us to learn a new task on the farm very quickly and neglect to provide us with proper safety equipment and clothing. I am not a fast learner and I have been humiliated by my employer on various occasions for not being able to learn a new task the first time or for not working fast enough. 'Fast, fast, fast…' my boss tells me. I despise the word 'fast.' I can't go any faster. I have become what I always feared, easily disposable, easily replaced. What we want more than anything is our dignity. We are human beings, not robots.

"When I worked in Leamington, Ontario, I had a horrific experience where I was transported with five other men in a truck with no windows. It was dark and it was difficult to breathe. I remember screaming to the driver to turn on the lights. They treated us like we were cattle. We are expected to be submissive and that is simply not the way. Why can't our employer be kind and welcoming? Why live in misery? I'm not saying that this is the situation for all migrant farm workers, but for many it is. I spend more time with my employer than I do with my own family. I have to put up with his put downs and bad attitude. It's an injustice!"

According to Carlos, not being sexually active for long periods of time while working on Canadian farms promotes unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as drinking too much and participating in risky sexual activity.

Carlos: "We are all sexual beings and not having sexual relationships with our wives has a significant impact on our nervous system. Being sexually active is limited to non-existent for many of us. Every part of our life is impacted eight to 10 months out of the year. In order to forget the need for sexual intimacy, we choose to get drunk to numb the urge or participate in extramarital affairs. We judge and lose respect for each other for indulging in unhealthy choices, causing disharmony within the household."

Forty-seven-year-old Pedro from Puebla, Mexico, has been working on Canadian farms for eight years. He shared his experience not taken seriously by his employer when experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath.  

Pedro: "Accessing health care in Canada for me has been a bad experience. I had a scary experience last year where I was having chest pain and difficulty breathing. My employer did not believe me and became angry that I wasn't feeling well and told me to stay home. I needed to go to the hospital. I don't speak English and I am dependant on him to arrange transportation for me to get to the health clinic or hospital when I feel it necessary. I had to wait three days to go to the hospital. I didn't work the one day and the following two days I managed to work while experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath and lightheadedness. I was terrified because I needed to see a doctor immediately.

"A volunteer from a local church was contacted by a co-worker of mine who drove me to the hospital around midnight and provided interpretation services for me. I was in observation until 3:30 a.m. The doctor told me that my blood and electrocardiogram results were normal. What I later understood was that I was experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks. We are easily replaced in this line of work so we are scared to say that we are sick because we will be sent home and not be allowed to return."

I asked Carlos and Pedro how Canadians can support migrant farm workers in accessing health-care services and in making healthy choices.

Carlos: "We receive lots of important information from this festival. We come home with a bunch of written information but that is not enough. Some of us don't read or don't care to read or just are not interested in brochures and written information that is provided to us. We come from a culture that is not familiar with receiving brochures and written information.

"What we need is human resources. We need people to come and talk to us. To visit the farms. We need to break bad habits and prioritize learning about how to take care of ourselves. Our time is not ours and we are pressured with working in a fast pace. It has become a way of living. Some of us sleep with the cell phone on our pillow, which I've heard is not good for you. We wake up and drink Coke. We don't nourish ourselves properly. We don't get the proper sleep we need. It seems like after so many years of being mistreated, we mistreat ourselves."

Pedro: "It would be beneficial if we could have a counsellor come to the farm to talk to us about mental health and what it is and how our life on the farm has impacted our emotional and psychological health. The thing is -- our life is always about rushing. We can't even go to the grocery store when we want. It is stressful because the grocery store gets so crowded. We are taken on certain days for a limited number of hours to do groceries, go to the bank, deposit our check and wire money to our families. It's always a rush. We end up picking up bad habits and don't get the proper rest and nourishment that we need to stay healthy."

I also asked the organizers and workers that I interviewed what a just health-care system look like for migrant farm workers would look like. 

According Carlos and Pedro, there is a great need to implement an employer accountability process. The one in place tends to be overlooked or of very low priority. Carlos and Pedro suggests a supervising body that trains farm owners on how to treat migrant farm workers. Carlos says that employers need to understand that "we come from different cultures and deserve respect."

Pedro argues that "Employers need to learn how to value and advocate for our wellbeing. They need to learn what is involved in providing a healthy work environment with fair treatment for migrant workers. We deserve to be treated like humans beings. This is suppose to be a developed country but slavery still exists here."

Carlos and Pedro both desire fair treatment and dignity for all migrants and immigrants. "We are nomads, the new immigrants. We come here with financial and family problems," says Carlos. "We don't deserve to come to our place of employment and find that we are unwelcome by our employer. The amount of hours that we put in the farm, no Canadian will do."

Carlos wants Canadians to know that migrant farm workers are the ones that pick their flowers, apples, and peaches. Farm workers make it possible for Canadians to enjoy fruits and vegetables with their family.

Heryka Miranda is a dance artist, community cultural worker and activist scholar in her last semester of her MA in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University. Her research explores the experiences of Mexican and Guatemalan, Niagara-Region migrant farm workers’ participation in experiential "dance for relaxation" community arts sessions. The purpose for her study was to provide temporary relief to feelings of isolation, and homesickness often experienced by the precariousness of migrant farm workers’ employment.  

Image: Flickr/breadfortheworld

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