Inside a migrant worker transport van

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A scan of the classified ad the writer answered. Headline says   "Greenhouse hiring" and body text says "Picking tomatoes." Photo: Aylwin Lo

In light of this week's tragic incident involving the deaths of 10 migrant workers in southern Ontario, I felt it was finally time to -- at least partially -- 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.

For more about this week's incident see here.

- - -

It's almost 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in Toronto's North York and the strip mall hallway at Jane and Finch where we've been waiting since 2 p.m. is about to be locked up for the night. In broken, slurred English, the proprietor is offering us refuge in his hallway (for $10 a head) which he'll lock us into until morning. One of his companions has suggested that we stay at a nearby hotel that doesn't charge very much for a night's stay -- especially if we drop his name. Another of the proprietor's friends is telling us that it's cold -- he has been in Canada 15 years, he says, so he knows -- and we need a place to stay. "Nobody here in Canada cares about your stuff, man... Nobody's gonna steal it." At intervals, he adds, "It's cold! You guys are gonna freeze! You need a place to stay, man!"

The other Chinese workers gather around me to ask what the commotion is about -- by now word that I speak English has spread (fortunately, I also speak Mandarin, having realized earlier that without a proper grasp of it I wasn't going to pass for anything other than a Canadian-born Chinese). I explain that the proprietors are offering us accommodation for the night in the corridor where some of us have been waiting for eight hours. Of course, no one needs or wants their offers. We're just waiting for the vehicle that will take us to our greenhouse work in Leamington, a few hours south of Toronto. I relay the appreciative refusal and explain that we're just waiting for a ride, but to no avail. I am ignored, and the proprietor and his friends keep hammering away at my soon-to-be-coworkers, seemingly oblivious to both their incomprehension and my translation.

It isn't hard to see why we're getting this treatment. Jane and Finch is an intersection renowned for criminal activity. It gets a worse rap than it deserves, to be sure, and we never feel concerned for our safety at any point. But we stand out. Having been unloaded in groups of three or four at approximately two-hour intervals, our unannounced presence has slowly increased throughout the day. Chattering away in Chinese amidst our suitcases and bags of clothes, cooking supplies, and food, we could pass for a group of recently-arrived migrants looking for work and accommodation. As the sole English speaker, I could be exploiting my cohorts just as easily as I could be translating for them, as often happens.

When communication breaks down between the Vietnamese couple co-ordinating our transportation to Leamington and a Chinese worker, I'm appointed to translate from the Vietnamese driver's heavily accented English to my own heavily accented Mandarin.

The wife of the driver-couple promised us at 7:30 p.m. that her husband would arrive in an hour. A half hour later, she was still saying that he would arrive in an hour. By 9:30 p.m., the corridor was being prepared to be locked up. Thrust into the cold, some of us huddle in the entrance of a neighbouring KFC, leaving a small mountain of baggage at the door of the corridor where we have been waiting.

Around 10:30, our vehicle arrives, pulling up in the middle of the abandoned parking lot of the grim strip mall where we've been waiting: the modified cube van is a welcome, if foreboding, sight. A man hops out of the passenger seat and opens the loading door in the back. Excited about the cargo space, we get ready to load our bags, but as the cargo door rises we're crestfallen to see that most of the storage space is taken up by hundreds of neatly stacked, small wooden widgets about the size and shape of doorstops. About 5 bags from the 17 of us and our multitude of bags are stowed here. Most of us enter through the front passenger door, climbing in between the driver and passenger seats with our luggage, finding stowage and seating wherever possible within the box.

The box seems to have been hastily retrofitted. Ripped mosquito nets hang off the windows which quickly fog, then freeze over. Overhead racks are attached to the walls by means of L-brackets. Crossing the ceiling, a tangle of wires attaches three lights, from which dangle small switches. Most of the ride we are lit by a small yellow light at the front of the container that resembles a reapproriated motorcycle turn signal. With button accents strewn across the cushioned vinyl panels that cover the ceiling and walls, the box looks like it was once an attempt at a mobile karaoke lounge. Most of us sit on school bus seating that has been attached to the plywood floor, and a few more find small plastic stools upon which to sit in the aisle. One of the last to board, I perch on a box directly behind and above the driver's head, trying to forget that we are about to drive down an infamously treacherous stretch of the 401 and that I'm in prime position to be thrown through the windshield should the driver do so much as tap the brakes a little too hard.

We thankfully arrive without incident in Leamington around 2 a.m. We are deposited at a large greenhouse within the city limits. I feel relieved to be in a familiar environs, and settle into my sleeping bag on a bunk bed. Lights are coming on at 6:30 a.m., and we start work at 7:30.

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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