The new indentureship

By Herman Silochan

“Arguably, the principle of being ‘beholden’ to your employer for all your needs, even after work, is reminiscent of the indentured labour practices of the 19th century, whereby immigrants came to North America on contract to work for a number of years in exchange for passage and accommodation. Although the practice is different today, the principle of near total dependence on the goodwill of the employer is not.” From Harvest Pilgrims, a photo essay by Vincenzo Pietropaolo.
Last week, we looked at Ontario’s food distribution system. Overall, this is complex machinery that involves modern communications, innovative quality controls, a blessed soil, and a stratification of labour input that determines the movement from crop to the consumer. It looks ideal. After all, you do get world class food to your kitchen.
However, ask yourself a simple question. Just about every one of you has driven down the Niagara peninsula admiring vineyards, or traipsed through central Ontario enjoying the expansive green carpeted scenery. How many farm workers do you see from the road? As if humans are hidden away, and the crops miraculously grow. Yes you do see the occasional tractor in motion, and endless bales of rolled hay in poetry of form, or small herds of cattle waiting for photographers. Drive off the beaten path, on long gravelled laneways, beyond the traditional terraced farm house, and somewhere hidden in the scrubby outback are bunkhouses, or trailers.
Let’s say it loud and clear, the migrant workers, all 20,000 of them across the province, underpin our agricultural miracle.
These men from the Caribbean and Central America, especially Mexico, do dawn to dusk backbreaking menial tasks that the Canadian born is unwilling to do. Actually, many returning workers have acquired skills that farm owners come to depend on. But still, the basic minimum wage of $10.25 an hour applies. And out of that, twenty five percent is withheld from the Caribbean workers. Nineteen percent is to be paid to them when they return to their respective islands. Four percent go to the salaries of liaison officers and one percent to cover medical insurance. This Caribbean nations’ withholding, I am told, frequently runs into a morass of corruption and official red tape that the “holidaying” labourer cannot, or hardly get, what is due to him. Besides this, most migrant workers pay bunk and utilities rent from this wage. Perhaps the most de-humanizing aspect to this program is that a farmer, who “owns” his migrant crew, can rent them out to another farmer in labour need, and reportedly small profits do accrue to the “owner.”
I have been learning a lot about the intricacies of our migrant worker system from union organizer Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia. Even at a young age, Ramsaroop has become a well-recognized veteran of the labour movement, travelling and documenting labour practices in the heart of Ontario’s farm lands, places like Leamington, Simcoe, Chatham, Bradford, Brantford, St. Thomas and London. He brings out the hidden, things which many do not like to hear about.
Justicia, by the way, is a migrant worker’s advocacy group founded in 2002. But the big major player in this labour segment is the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW). Both organisations have parallel observations:
the implementation of the CSAWP (Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program) in 1966 served as a model for bringing in migrant workers, but remains basically unchanged over the past 46 years. For example, migrant workers are excluded from any negotiations on their behalf.
“Independent inspection and enforcement of health and labour standards are essentially non-existent. There are no pathways to permanent immigration. Workers who raise concerns are typically repatriated without recourse to legal hearing.” In other words, he cannot come back to Canada.
In the Windsor area, some migrant workers bunk in unheated trailers, no toilets, no stoves, only hot-plates.
A singular irony to all this is that migrant labourers collectively spend $82 million annually in their local communities, purchasing food staples, clothing and recreation. It is known that on Friday nights, women from big towns go to meet these men for socialising and what-have-you. Academic and financial observers of the southern regional farming community recognise the positive economic input of migrant workers.
Another irony: so productive is the labour input that in the fall months, thousands of tons of produce are left to rot rather than re-distributed into the food chain. A profitable province-wide price structure has to be maintained.
A sad fact: between 1996 and 2011, forty one migrant workers have been killed on the job or on their way to work. Many use bicycles to commute from bunkhouse to farm. There has never been a single inquest, though on November 19 there will be one for Ned Livingston Peart, a Jamaican who was crushed to death on an Ontario farm in 2002. The hearing will take place under a Human Rights tribunal, and not under any occupational safety hazards rulings.
Ramsaroop’s first hand observation about all this is the racialization of the migrant workers program, where negative stereotypes abound, and until this is eliminated, there will be no justice for these men who feed us.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving next week, let’s say a prayer for our Caribbean and Latin American brothers, and acknowledge the bountiful table they have provided for us.