Inside the working conditions of migrant workers: Journal five

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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 fifth 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.


Thursday starts with some confusion. The contractors are trying to allocate us based on who is planning on returning to Toronto this weekend, and who is planning on staying on longer. Many of the workers are undecided. Just two days ago, we were refusing to work at all. It's no help that the contractor's translator speaks Cantonese poorly, so I have trouble understanding his instructions.

Today I am placed with a sizable contingent of workers delivered to a large, sign-less greenhouse. The woman who greets us seems friendly enough, but it isn't long before we're all resenting her voice. Her tone changes the moment we hit the greenhouse floor. She screeches commands at us that echo off the transparent plastic walls. Our group joins a crew of Asian, Latin American, Canadian, and African workers, and are herded through zone after zone of a large-scale tomato plant nursery. Each zone is isolated by walls, sanitizing doormats, and wall-mounted hand-sanitizer dispensers. When we finally reach the far corner of the greenhouse, we're instructed to sanitize our hands and get to work.

Sprawling in front of us on the greenhouse floor, tens of thousands of foot-tall tomato seedlings in fibreglass growing-medium cubes await the next step of their life cycle. They're spaced just far enough apart that we can slide a foot between them to get around. We're handed stacks of trays, into which we are told to place the seedlings. The remaining details of our task are unclear, but we know we need to move quickly. The contractor is all over us, frantically giving us fragments of direction as we go. From his tense manner, I deduce he's concerned with making a good impression on the greenhouse owner.

"Gather all the same heights together!"
"No, not the small ones! Take them out, leave them!"
"No, the heart's gotta be above the stake! See? See! See the heart? Look at the stake!"

In this fast-paced, multilingual environment, communication reduces itself to its lowest common denominators: grunts, gestures, miming, and yeses and nos. The contractor points, grabs, and shoves us into place as he interprets the greenhouse management's directions.

As we finish one zone and move on to the next, I notice that each of the areas of seedlings has a sign over it indicating the name of the greenhouse the plants are destined for. I recognize many of the greenhouse names -- they're all the region's big players. We're in the heart of its tomato industry, the heart of what one of my colleagues last year dubbed the Tomatrix. The movie analogy is apt: technology is everywhere. Orange-tipped blue irrigation hoses hang in a grid from the ceiling and fade into the distance. More hoses are mounted at staggered heights along the walls of each zone, tipped with mysterious instruments. In a few areas, mechanized floats are suspended just above seedling height.

Throughout the day, two of the greenhouse's most shrill, impatient representatives deliver the day's orders under the instruction of a slim-built, grey-haired, and grey-faced man. I have little doubt that they're merely doing the dirty work that brings our labour into compliance with the unforgivingly tight figures in his spreadsheet, but nonetheless their voices and manner serve as effective lightning rods for our frustration. They have enforcers in our ranks, all frowning, grimacing, industrious. "Don't work together like that. You work faster alone." "HEY! HEY! Not there! GET OVER HERE. HEY! YOU! Yeah, YOU! Get. Over. HEEERE!!"

Once the seedlings are all packed into their trays, we load the trays onto metal carts and move them to a vehicle loaded with trailers which will carry the seedlings to their destination greenhouse. As we near the completion of the task, the screeching supervisor stops us halfway through loading one of the metal carts with seedlings. She angrily orders us to unload them, as we failed to predict that this would be the point where they would want us to stop loading. Dutifully, we unload the cart. When we finish, she returns to reprimand us for unloading the seedlings in the wrong part of this vast, mostly empty greenhouse, and hustles us to move them to the "right" place. I stare at her in disbelief, looking for some sign of recognition as to how akin this is to the dig-a-hole-and-fill-it-back-in stereotype of menial labour, even a sign of acknowledgement that they were clearly in the "wrong" place because she had failed to give us clear instructions.

As I look for the sign of acknowledgement of the absurdity, or even the humour, of the situation, all I find is a stone-cold, why-are-you-still-standing-there glare. I turn my head to check myself, and find the acknowledgement I seek: the 40 awed faces laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief and end-of-day fatigue.

As the last tray of plants is placed in its "right" place, the shrill supervisor drops her final order of the day: "Go home." It should feel like a relief, but somehow she manages to make it feel more like a stomp on the toe. Mildly stunned by the abrupt lack of badgering, we glance at our watches: it's 4:05. A co-worker approaches me, griping. "They stole five minutes from us!"

Five minutes may seem like a drop in the bucket, and it is. But these employers have been obsessed with our punctuality from the moment we stepped in the door. Particularly after a day of enduring their rude, badgering, time-obsessive management, the extra time leaves a distinct sour taste in the mouths of all.

When we return to the greenhouse we're staying at, we're presented with a fresh dilemma: the contractor wants five of us to move to the greenhouse where they've been sending us until today. None of us consider this desirable. Separated from the majority of our co-workers, and without daily contact with the contractors, it will be harder for us -- and the rest of our co-workers -- to make sure that we're all paid promptly. Because of the unisex living arrangements at the other greenhouse, my regular work crew would be broken up. We would be in an isolated area far from the nearest centre, distancing us from any services or support resources we might need that could help us assert our rights or exert our collective power.

Faced with this possibility, I consider leaving. I list the reasons why I should leave now:

1. I've given as much support as I can as an individual, and while I've been useful, my ability to effect lasting change is severely limited. We need: a) good jobs for new immigrants so they don't need jobs like this, which means the government needs to provide better training and paths to re-accreditation; b) better working conditions so that these positions are desirable to all Canadians, and not only those most desperate or marginal.

2. I've gathered as much information as I can; given the language barriers to get any further, I would need to learn more Mandarin.

3. English teaching, one of my original goals, is not going to happen in this kind of environment.

4. The work and stress are starting to irritate my eczema to the point where my skin is breaking out severely.

I tell the contractor that I'm leaving this weekend. Either word travels slowly or they're feigning broken telephone, but his wife asks me if I've chosen the workers who are coming with me to the other greenhouse, again nudging me into the uncomfortable role of foreman. One of my co-workers overhears her question and asks us if he can come with me. Suddenly, our crew is full again, this man replacing the woman who would have been excluded. Then the contractor's wife goes away and comes back, telling me that four, not five, of us are moving to the greenhouse tomorrow. Additionally, the move will be tomorrow -- Friday -- at 5 a.m. rather than Monday at 5 a.m. as they had previously told us. My strong suspicion is that they want us out of the way when it's time to pay the workers who are leaving this weekend. I tell her that if that's the case, I'm going back to Toronto.

I know that in taking this stance, I'm indirectly making the decision for my co-workers as to whether or not they move to the other greenhouse. I've been put in the position of a lynchpin, and I think I'm doing the right thing by not falling for what I think is a trap that, while directed at me, affects more people than myself.

The contractors are slow to respond; I resolve to patiently await what the morning brings.

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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