Inside the working conditions of migrant workers: Journal two

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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

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 second 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.

- - -

We're roused at 6 a.m. when the contractors turn on the lights. From the top bunk of one of six lining the walls, I survey our room. It's cold and clean, floored with off-white tiles. The ceiling is crossed by exposed air vents and several pipes. Through the sole, small window, I can see that it's still dark out. I've been here before; I recognize the room as one of three similarly configured rooms in this plant.

The vents and pipes resonate with the sound of humming machinery, a hum which permeates our days and nights everywhere we go. My partner, with whom I've been checking in daily, later notes that a distinct hum is audible in each of my phone messages.

I've heard about how they push the workers to their limits here: in the summer the Mexican and Caribbean workers are assigned personal digital assistants (PDAs) loaded with a software package that measures the speed at which they work and ranks them compared to their coworkers. I steel my sleep-deprived mind for whatever psychological warfare lies ahead, roll off my bunk and grab my toothbrush, already feeling some dread as I know how my day's going to start: just to use a washroom I'll have to descend the steel-mesh stairs and cross the warehouse garage floor.

Hygiene comes first. The washroom where I brush my teeth is like any public men's washroom, equipped with stalls, urinals and hand dryers. The sink is a custom-welded stainless steel trough, wide enough for three labourers to brush their teeth simultaneously with a bit of elbow room for whoever is at the urinal or the hand dryer at opposite ends. The lights don't work in the room behind the washroom where around 10 showers and a hot water heater are bathed in the dim light seeping in from the main washroom. Because the facilities are meant for the predominantly male labourers who work here in the summer, the women's washroom lacks a back room for showering. When women need to shower, they knock on the men's room to see if the coast is clear, then tie the door shut behind them with a string attached to the door handle.

After brushing my teeth, I go next door to the kitchen, which has two larger trough sinks along one wall, a row of perhaps 10 fridges along another, and a row of stoves along the third wall.

It isn't long before a crisis develops. Someone calls me over to translate a heated conversation between one of the workers and the contractor. Neither of them are among the people I met last night: the worker is a small, balding Chinese man who looks like he's at the end of his rope. The contractor, who speaks Vietnamese and English, is dressed and built like someone who grew up in Canada. He's wearing a baseball cap, a Columbia jacket, and sports a wedding band and a moustache.

The worker tells me he hasn't been paid in more than two weeks (they are supposed to be paid weekly). The contractor had promised him he would be paid when our crew arrived, as they needed our driver to bring the cash from Toronto. Yet the new crew is here, but the pay is not. Rightly, the worker smells something fishy. The contractor implores me to convince the labourer of his side: "This man doesn't understand, we're asking for one more day. Keep telling him, tell him again. We'll pay him tomorrow. The driver who was supposed to bring the money, he's doing a bad job, but I want to make sure you guys get paid. Just stay. One more day."

The worker ignores my best translations into Mandarin and refuses. I begin to grasp the implications: staying another day is really staying another week. Transportation between Leamington and Toronto is provided once a week, so if he doesn't return to Toronto today, he has to find his own way back or stay the entire week facing a dilemma each day: refuse to work and burn through more cash, or work another full week and hope that the contractor who has already proven himself unreliable will finally pay out.

Three workers from his crew have already left, forfeiting two weeks' pay just to escape from this very same dilemma.

After some frenzied back-and-forth, the contractor offers to run to the bank machine and pay the worker on the spot with his own cash. Before he can leave though, there is some confusing non-verbal dialogue, and the contractor gives a token amount of cash to the balding worker, then snatching it back from him.

Cell phones and walkie-talkies ring, beep, and buzz incessantly. This dispute has delayed the start of our labour and the greenhouse owners already have noticed the delay. Oblivious to the unrest unfolding in our quarters, they are getting impatient, wondering how their seedlings will be planted, how their cucumber vines will get wound, who will help them connect the plants to their high-tech hydroponic systems. Meanwhile, some of us new arrivals are re-thinking whether we want to work today. The contractor senses it.

Eventually, I'm asked to do a job at a small greenhouse with a few other workers who are willing to give it a try. Although some of my fellow new arrivals decide not to work and I'm uncomfortable with breaking rank with those refusing work, I decide to follow the majority and see what the treatment will be like on-site. Surprisingly, the contractor offers to buy us lunch. Then the other shoe drops: on the way to our destination greenhouse, the contractor asks me to be "in charge" of this crew.

He likes to have a leader, he tells me. I cringe. He reassures me that he's been doing this for years and isn't out to cheat us. I cringe again and look for landmarks amidst the frozen farmland around us.

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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