As the Peruvian immigrant community in Kitchener-Waterloo — and families at home in Peru — mourn the loss of 11 of their own in a deadly highway crash in rural Ontario on February 6, at least one Toronto daily newspaper two days later prioritized instead the highway death a single girl (a white, 19-year-old aspiring model), pushing the 11 Peruvian lives to page eight.
This is but a symptom of a larger problem that suggests that white/Canadian lives are more valuable than their non-white/non-Canadian counterparts.
Consider the circumstances: Monday’s crash, which occurred as the Peruvian workers were returning home in a 15-passenger van from work on an Ontario chicken farm, killed 11 passengers and left the remaining three in critical condition. These kinds of vans are cheap and usually carry more workers than would a more expensive truck or SUV. They have also been described as “death traps” and have been investigated and banned in several states and provinces for failing to meet safety standards. Not surprisingly, Ontario police blamed the accident on “driver error” but made no mention of the fact that the vans are designed to carry cargo, not people — a telling indication of the way migrant workers are viewed in rural Ontario.
The priorities reflected in the Metro News piece are rooted in Canadian government policy that prioritizes the interests of business over the lives of people, especially people of colour in or from foreign countries.
To their credit, the Canadian media has picked up on the issue of the safety of the vans. The Toronto Star ran a short op-ed on Wednesday, February 8 insisting that there be an investigation into the use of these vans on Canadian roads. While a good starting point, the piece got muddled in safety assessments and missed the larger point: that it is not Canadian workers but foreign migrants — coaxed into leaving their homes to work temporarily in Canada because they will accept low wages and use few public services — who are being placed in these vehicles whose safe usage has yet to be determined.
This is no coincidence. Targeted by employers on the basis of their weak economic and social positions, migrant workers in Canada are consistently placed in unsafe conditions that lead to injury, disease, and death. South Asian workers brought to B.C. to pick berries are routinely paid less than minimum wage and are crammed into ramshackle housing without toilet and plumbing facilities, ventilation, or heating. Medical journals have repeatedly noted that the backbreaking labour, long hours, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, and repeated exposure to pesticides and other chemical agents for workers as young as 12 means that up to 85 per cent of migrant workers in Canada suffer from serious injuries and illness, from musculoskeletal destruction to waterborne intestinal disease.
In fact, Monday’s accident wasn’t the first time that migrant workers have been killed in Canada while crowded into the same cargo vans in which 11 people were killed. A similar crash in 2004 killed three and injured five people in Ontario, while another crash in B.C. in 2007 killed three workers.
That migrant workers are exploited and endangered by Canadian employers sheds a distinctly unflattering light on Canada’s energetic efforts to recruit such workers. Agencies have increasingly popped up in a variety of poor countries in order to market their workers to Canadian businesses. A website labelled “Workers From Honduras,” for instance, helpfully locates Honduras on a map and promises potential Canadian employers that workers are “carefully selected” and “briefed on their obligations and conduct with their bosses” while assuring that any grievances against workers will be swiftly addressed. No mention is made of workers’ grievances against Canadian employers.
This might beg the question: why do people accept these jobs if they have a well-documented record of being unsafe and exploitative? The employers that rely on migrant labour understand that they will only coax people to work for them if employment opportunities in their home countries are relatively few and exploitative. For example, in Peru, neo-liberal policies have created dramatic escalations of urban and rural poverty: the privatization and sale of communal lands to foreign mining companies has left entire communities with little means of survival and has led to massive protests that are inevitably crushed by the Peruvian military and police. Canada signed a free trade agreement with Peru just two weeks after one such crackdown killed over 50 Peruvians.
In the first place, then, it is clear that Canadian businesses take advantage of people who are already in a precarious position in order to boost their own profits. Not exactly commendable behaviour. Further, Canadian businesses don’t simply take advantage of foreign workers who are brought to work in Canada, they also go to great pains to exploit those workers on their own soil. Over the past 30 years, Canadian companies have pushed hard to gain access to foreign markets in order to establish mines, factories, or resort hotels in countries with weak labour, safety, and environmental regulations in order to — again — boost their profits, at the expense of foreign workers.
The free trade agreement with Peru makes Canadian businesses Peru’s largest investors in mining, employing workers in dangerous jobs with low wages and little security. Indeed, Canada spent nearly $10 million in the early 2000s on a project to “re-develop” Peru’s mining legislation such that labour laws, environmental protections, and tax codes would be rewritten to the advantage of Canadian companies. Similar processes have played out in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Colombia, where workers are exploited ruthlessly in mines or sweatshops and where people caught organizing against Canadian employers have faced violence and assassinations. Just ask the Dominican workers who were assassinated by private security forces after they tried to form a union at Canadian-owned Barrick Gold mines at Pueblo Viejo.
What is perhaps most damning about this systematic exploitation of foreign and migrant workers is that it takes place with the full participation of the Canadian state. In fact, it would not be possible without a comprehensive set of policies, spanning various departments and offices, designed to enable and encourage this process.
The Canadian state has made it a foreign policy priority to push, by a variety of means, those neo-liberal “reforms” on poorer countries, driving their economies into the extremes of wealth inequality that create the very poverty that in turn compels people to accept the miserable jobs Canadian businesses offer them. These policies are enshrined in agreements like NAFTA and the various bilateral free trade agreements Canada has signed with countries like Honduras, Colombia, and Peru. The typically right-wing governments of these countries — led by local elites happy to sell out their citizens for a piece of the action — usually use violence and state terror to maintain their grip over the people whose lives they are ruining. As such, some of Canada’s closest allies include some of the most notorious regimes in the Western Hemisphere.
To make matters worse, Canada does not simply take advantage of these atrocious conditions, it actively interferes in foreign countries’ internal politics to establish these right-wing governments and support their continuous control. In 2004, Canada participated in the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government of Haiti after it had moved to establish better conditions for its desperately impoverished people. In 2009, Canada supported a similar coup d’état in Honduras, supporting a military dictatorship that has killed hundreds of people in the past three years, most of whom were connected with the peaceful resistance that is demanding a return to democratic governance. Canadian businesses have profited handsomely from their operations in post-coup Haiti and Honduras, and migrant worker programs that bring impoverished people from these and other countries to work in rural Ontario or British Columbia have become increasingly ubiquitous as worsening conditions have driven people into accepting these difficult and dangerous migrant work programs.
Which brings us full circle to the deaths of 11 Peruvian migrant workers in unsafe transportation to and from their poorly paid, temporary Canadian jobs. On Wednesday, the Canadian media reported that the three survivors of the crash would likely receive little-to-no compensation and would be promptly deported back to Peru. It is a perverse insult — with material and social consequences — added to the already life-threatening injuries they have received at the hands of a country that views them as little more than value-producing cargo to be offloaded as soon as it becomes unproductive.
David Armando Hernandez Blancas began his work shift on Monday at 7 a.m. Ten hard-worked hours later, he was driving the van in which he and 10 other migrant workers were killed. The Canadian media is now rushing to blame him for their deaths, assuring us that it was his fault alone — he ran a stop sign — perhaps in an effort to ease a guilty collective conscience. It will not fly. Hernandez and his colleagues will be missed, and the responsibility for their deaths must fall squarely on the shoulders of the Canadian state and business apparatus that have created the system of exploitation that led to their too-soon passing.
Tyler Shipley is a writer and researcher who teaches at York University in Toronto.
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