Inside the working conditions of migrant workers: Journal three

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A journal kept during a two-week trip in early 2004 to investigate the conditions of undocumented Chinese migrant farm workers
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 third 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.

--

Six of us -- three men, three women -- are deposited at a greenhouse that is much smaller than the one where we are housed. It has a different name, too, but the owner is definitely related somehow. He later brags that his brother-in-law is a "big shot" with the family conglomerate that runs the larger greenhouse.

Because of the pay dispute, we're late and a few others are already working. There are two Bosnians who work for the same contractor as we do. A Mexican, a Mexican Mennonite, and two Canadians are also at work, hired directly by the greenhouse owner.

Our job is simple: laid along the rows are long blocks of a synthetic fibre in which the greenhouse plants are to take root. Along the blocks are trays of smaller synthetic fibre blocks, each containing eight cucumber seedlings. Our task is to place the cucumber seedlings into their slots on the synthetic fibre bricks, then attach their life support: a small plastic spike attached to a small hose that keeps the plant watered. Though simple, the job isn't easy. Everything we're working with is at floor-level, and after a row I'm already aching.

At lunch, the contractor makes good on his promise and appears with a bucket of KFC. He seems eager to placate us -- he can't afford staffing issues this early in the week. The next busload of workers isn't arriving for another five days. Hungry from travel and the morning's work, we cautiously accept the gesture and quickly eat the food he pushes onto the paper plates. Meanwhile, I try to stay aloof and shift his perception of me from leader or intermediary to translator-at-most.

By afternoon, my coworkers discover that the empty seedling trays can be stacked to make seats, easing the pain in their backs but raising the boss' ire: he claims it slows us down, and at the afternoon break he complains to me that my cohorts work far slower than the Mexican workers who come via the government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. I stifle an urge to launch into a know-it-all, mini-lecture on the numerous differences in social, legal, family, physical, and regulatory circumstances accounting for the difference in labour output. The boss is conveniently forgetting that the Mexican and Caribbean workers who work here for the majority of the season are carefully selected for age, physique, sex, and agricultural experience; they are a captive workforce whose contracts lock them into one Canadian employer.

When we return to the larger greenhouse, there's a buzz in the air. While we've been away, the workers who remained have been discussing deserting the contractor -- mostly by finding independent means of transport back to Toronto (I later learn one previous couple took the extreme measure of hiring a local taxi for the four-hour drive back to Toronto). I decide that if others leave, I'll try to find work at another greenhouse, since there would be no one here for me to remain loyal to. I may find out more if I find work with another contractor.

My new acquaintances try to establish plans of action for themselves and seek partners with whom to execute their plans. A few show interest in joining me. I remember that a university professor I worked with to screen the farm-worker documentary El Contrato has driven out to help Mexican workers who were having wage disputes. I call her to ask for advice and to see if she might be able to drive down, if need be.

People are considering other options before an evening meeting between the workers and the contractors. There are two demands people are considering making: the first is a guarantee that we'll be paid weekly (no different from the status quo), and the second is a guarantee that we'll be paid daily (no small undertaking when paid in cash).

The meeting is much delayed. The contractors are busy trying to settle things with the workers who have been here longer than us. Eventually they "agree" to pay the workers -- if the workers provide detailed reports of the work they performed each day. Given the utterly mundane and forgettable nature of the work one does each day, this seems more like a stalling move than a genuine attempt at establishing a paper trail. Disputes happen, too, with deductions made when workers and the contractor disagree, however arbitrarily. Still, it's a close enough approximation that many take what they can get and accept the ride back to our quarters.

When our meeting finally happens, we seat ourselves around the bunk beds, mattresses, and chairs of one of the rooms. The driver who picked me up in Toronto seats himself in the middle, presumably because he can communicate in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and English. After lengthy discussion -- about 93 per cent of which I fail to comprehend -- we're each asked our preference: weekly pay or daily pay. Thankfully, I'm one of the last to be asked. To my surprise, almost everyone before me demands to be paid daily -- even those who had been unsure right up until it was their turn. I fall in line and demand the same. I'm also the only worker who receives a follow-up question: the polyglot driver-translator-contractor representative asks me what I'll do if they can't deliver. I tell him flatly that I'll find another job, knowing that I'm not the only who can do the same, and that if nothing else, we'll be causing the contractors a mild daily headache.

So far, I've been surprised by the disdain and incredulity shown by the workers for the working conditions with which they're presented. This is not what many had bargained for, and I realize that I've made the same mistake as the owner of the greenhouse where we had just been working: in comparing my colleagues to the Mexicans who come here in the summer. The classified ad for this job lay amidst those for restaurant jobs in a Toronto Chinese daily and said little more than "Farm Hiring. Picking Tomatoes." While I knew it meant exactly what I saw before me, those around me had no such clue. My colleagues are from a wide range of economic and educational backgrounds, genders, sizes, ages, and physiques. This is seen as a stopgap. A few have returned to this work for a few years, albeit with different contractors. A few do it while on vacation in Canada, or come across it as a means to sustenance for the first few months of their new life in Canada. It seems the Chinese and Vietnamese workers who stick it out longer, and who continue in the summer, are those with the fewest other options -- the oldest and those without work permits.

The contractors withhold their decision until the morning, when they are again scrambling for workers. Many are refusing to work. I refuse, too, complaining of soreness -- even though in truth, I'm not so sore that I can't work. After some more back-and-forth, the contractors give in. They'll do it. They dole out Sunday's pay, promising to pay us at the end of the day today, too. Unfortunately, they put me in the role of divvying up the cash for those I work with... but still, success! We dash off to work, energized. I'm stunned. We've just scored a small victory by sticking together through an informal collective bargaining process.

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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