Doing research for The Grapes of Wrath at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, we were directed by members of the United Food & Commercial Workers to the plight of today’s migrant workers. I knew nothing about Canada’s employment of people from abroad on our farms. For a country that prides itself on being strong and free, there is an entire population of workers treated by completely different standards: a six-and-a-half or seven-day work week; minimum wage for back-breaking labour; sub-standard conditions; inadequate living arrangements. I felt helpless. How could I enact change? We were urged to start conversations as the first step, so let me lead you to five illuminating links.
Kyle Golemba is an actor, writer and cabaret artist with a life that packs up into a minivan. He is currently in Stratford as a member of the Acting Company at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Follow him at kylegolemba.com and @ineedkyletime
Kyle’s five links
This 2004 article from Maclean’s points out the living conditions, job risks and inherent unfairness tied into the migrant workers program. Seven years after this article was published in a major Canadian magazine, not much has been done to change the situation, and the conditions remain largely the same.
Stan Raper is an activist with the UFCW who has been at the forefront of the campaign to improve the rights of migrant workers. In 2002, he coordinated the opening of the first migrant support centre, which is in Leamington, Ontario. This rally video features Raper and speaks of the conditions with testimonials from the the migrant workers about their experiences.
One of the most intimidating facets of this issue is the government’s role. The government sanctions worker exploitation by deducting EI and taxes, but still making it difficult for migrants to obtain the benefits those deductions usually entail. This is in addition to being given very few protections, despite their contributions to our country. Policies should be in place to protect the workers–guests in our country–who help put food on our tables. Unfortunately, these workers are exploited, rather than helped, by the rules in place.
Last year, several men working on a farm near Simcoe, Ontario were left with thousands of dollars unpaid, and forced to return home with less than they were promised–and unable to do anything about it. This article highlights the treatment that occurs when there is no course of action or protection for workers: it points to the injustices these workers face daily.
One of the resources UFCW showed us is an NFB documentary, El Contrato. There are some unbelievable moments, particularly involving the farmers’ attitudes regarding the workers and the futility of the migrants’ attempts to be treated fairly. The filmmakers were taken to court over the way certain people were represented in the film. I’ll leave it to you to see if you can guess who made the complaints.