TORONTO – Mexican, Central American and Caribbean seasonal migrant workers in Canada have played a key role for decades in keeping supermarkets there stocked with produce.
But it has taken the pandemic to finally shine a light on the troubles facing these essential laborers, hundreds of whom have contracted the novel coronavirus on farms since the health emergency began and three of whom have died of COVID-19.
Mexico’s Juan Luis Mendoza de la Cruz has been a seasonal farmworker in Canada for nearly three decades, occasionally staying in that North American country for up to eight months at a time.
He says that under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, he is not protected by the country’s labor laws and therefore earns less than the minimum salary, works up to 14 hours a day and has no ability to work somewhere else if he falls victim to abusive treatment.
“There have been a lot of injustices,” Mendoza told EFE at a farm in Southern Ontario’s Niagara Region.
“Sometimes it’s the precarious conditions on the farms. Also (there’s) racism that still exists because our rights have been trampled on. And we really feel let down that there’s no one who can come to our aid a bit more,” Mendoza said.
Another Mexican migrant laborer, Blanca Islas Perez, has worked seasonally in Canada for 18 years. Her late husband had done that same work until 1990, when he committed suicide after denouncing his living and working conditions on a Canadian farm.
Islas’ experience has been equally challenging. She suffered an accident three years ago and broke her foot, yet she did not receive medical treatment for 13 hours because her supervisor initially refused to transport her to a local hospital.
Unable to speak English and feeling completely alone, she spent eight days at that medical facility before being sent to another hospital where some of the patients there were receiving treatment for mental illness.
“It was pure crying and suffering. I was so desperate that one day I tried to commit suicide. I saw a window. I saw a cable and I tried to kill myself. But it was then that I heard the voice of one of my daughters. Something clicked and that desperation went away. I didn’t go through with it, thank God,” Islas said.
A handful of organizations such as the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) have been fighting for fairer conditions for these laborers.
Until now, their demands had fallen on deaf ears. But the MWAC has organized a string of protests in recent weeks to denounce the situation and pressure Canada’s leaders to grant these workers permanent residency status.
Overcrowded conditions on the farms and a lack of personal protective equipment and social distancing measures have made those work places breeding grounds for infection.
Hundreds of Latin American seasonal migrant workers have contracted COVID-19 since their arrival in Canada, while three of these individuals – 32-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 55-year-old Juan Lopez Chaparro and 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos – have died of the disease.
Now, for the first time, the dramatic plight of these previously invisible workers has been splashed on the front pages of major Canadian newspapers.
“We were always invisible. Today they’re starting to see us a bit more. And it’s painful at times because, as a person with no rights or status, you go unnoticed,” Mendoza said.
One of the few local voices to denounce the conditions faced by foreign workers has been Karrie Porter, a member of the St. Catherines City Council in Southern Ontario’s Niagara Region, one of the country’s agricultural hubs and a place where several coronavirus outbreaks have occurred on farms.
Porter blames the plight of these laborers on discrimination, a lack of visibility and even racism.
Like MWAC, Mendoza and Islas, she also believes the solution lies in allowing these laborers to apply for permanent residency status in Canada.
“Racism is a huge factor. It’s a huge part of why they haven’t been able to get permanent residence status, which is something I fully support. And you often hear people say things like, ‘oh, they’re used to working in the hot condition,’ as if they’re somehow different than the rest of us,” Porter told EFE.
“You have these workers working 10, 12 and sometimes 14 hours a day doing what I consider highly skilled work. Picking cherries is highly skilled work. And they’re no different than anyone else, but it’s shocking to hear people say that these workers are somehow different, that they can withstand more difficult conditions than the rest of us,” she added.
Mendoza, meanwhile, says he adores Canada in spite of the difficulties he has encountered there.
“I love this land because I’ve seen flowers, tomatoes, celery and onions grow on this land. We’d like for them to see us as people and to at least have the rights we should have. And for them to respect us,” he added.