Jordan: I’m going to sketch out the bare bones of a story, and I bet that you’ll think, you know what I’m talking about. A Mexican man, a husband and father leaves his small farm and village to go work on a farm in another country. He spends more than half of each year there sending money back to his wife and kids.
Before returning to Mexico in the off season. He does this year after year after year, putting up with poor living conditions, sometimes abusive employers and fear that he will lose what little opportunity he has if he complains he has no choice. When eventually something goes wrong. You know that story, right?
One of the temp workers, the undocumented who cross into Texas or California to do the work that Americans don’t want to. Yes. Except instead of Texas or California. It’s Ontario and Quebec. Canada has a seasonal agricultural worker program that brings thousands of Mexican workers to Canadian farms every year, just like the United States.
And I know, we love to think that we are better and our conditions would be better, and these workers would have more rights and a path to residency, but we’re not. And they don’t. And our recent investigation made this all plain and produced records of thousands of complaints. Almost none of them have produced a result and a tragedy at the center of it.
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the big story. Sara Mojtehedzadeh is the work and wealth reporter at the Toronto star.
Jordan: Can you start maybe just by telling me who is Artemio Rodriguez?
Sara: Yeah Artemio Rodriquez was actually part of the first wave of migrant workers to come to Canada.
Um, in the early eighties. He grew up in a small town in rural Mexico. Came from a very impoverished background, just sort of surviving off substance subsistence farming. Um, and he decided to join this program that brings a Mexican workers to Canada to work our fields, um, for up to eight months a year in order to try and support his family.
He got married as a teenager, um, at the time that he left, he had four kids. His wife kind of remembers, you know, often not having food to eat and having to kind of forage by the river. Um, for, for sustenance. And so, um, really like many other workers, um, had very little choice other than to, you know, be separated from his family for most of the year in order to try and survive.
Jordan: Tell me about the program that brought him to Canada, the seasonal agricultural worker program. What is that?
Sara: Yeah, so I think a lot of Canadians don’t realize that this program exists, and I think part of that is because a lot of this work is really hidden from us, especially if we live in the city.
You know, we don’t really come into contact with how the food we eat gets to our. Our tables. So the seasonal agricultural worker program began, began in the late sixties because there was a labor shortage on farms, and it began as a pact with Jamaica actually to bring workers over for a temporary period of time to kind of fill that.
That gap on farms and it later expanded to nine other countries, including Mexico. Mexico is now by far the largest participant in, they send about 25,000 people every year. And the idea is that the workers come for up to eight months a year to plant, um, to harvest and to do agricultural work on our farms.
That, um, you know, the agricultural industries that. That employers really struggled to find Canadians who are, who are willing to do this work. Um, and obviously critics of that position would say that part of that is because of the, the working conditions. If, you know, if employers paid more, if there were more break, cause then it was less grueling and it’s.
Sort of structure, then there would be Canadians to fill those jobs. But yeah. And then the flip side of that is that it’s supposed to be a way for, for families in developing countries to, um, have a source of income, um, when they, they might be struggling to, to find work in the, in their own countries.
Jordan: So tell me about the jobs in general. Like what are they, you mentioned the working conditions. What are they like, what are you actually doing.
Sara: I mean, it’s incredibly physically challenging as they are. I think most people can imagine. It really depends on what kind of crop you’re harvesting.
Uh, workers here are, are planting and harvesting tobacco. They’re picking vegetables, which is often on your knees, which is incredibly physically exhausting. They’re working in hothouses greenhouses, and, uh, it’s, you know, it’s very long days, often. So we had. Some workers complain that they would sometimes work for an excess of 23 hours straight.
Yeah. So, you know, obviously not every farm is, is like that, but, um, it’s extremely physically demanding. And, um,
Jordan: Are they minimum wage?
Sara: Yeah. So the wave of the program is set up is that there’s a contract between. Canada and the sending country. And it sets out the kind of terms and conditions of work.
And, um, some of those conditions include paying minimum wage. So sort of on the face of it, it’s a safer and better option than, um, say going to the U S as an undocumented worker, which is really the other choice that a lot of, um, impoverished families face in order to. Survive. There’s sort of the promise of of housing, of minimum wage if they come to Canada and work on these farms of basic labor protections.
But really what our investigation found was that the structure of the program is such that it makes it easy to abuse those. The supposed terms and conditions. Um, and that’s because workers are really not empowered to speak up if their employer is not abiding by the contract. Um, workers are tied to a single employer.
Um, they don’t have the right to basically leave a bad job and go to a better employer. And so if you are working under abusive conditions, there are very few avenues to escape. And that puts the worker obviously in a position of extreme vulnerability. So, um, through this investigation we had, we actually managed to get access to a huge trove of complaints that Mexican workers have made against their employers in Canada.
And this is, you know, where some of the most kind of, to me shocking and, and really, um, kind of devastating details about what workers are, are living through, came out.
Jordan: Tell me how the investigation started, first of all, like what’s, what sparked you to dig into this?
Sara: Well, I’d been thinking a lot actually about the idea of family separation, and that was partly because of everything that we’re seeing in the U S the along
the border and seeing, you know, families, you know, seeking a, a better life and, and arriving at the border and being, and being separated from their loved ones. Then that just really struck a chord with me that, that some people are driven to make that choice and others don’t have to. And that’s such an incredibly.
Hard and I think heart-wrenching position to be in. Um, and I, I’ve covered the migrant worker program before as a labor reporter. Obviously, you know, that’s a, that’s a significant part of my beat. But I think my concern with. The coverage of, of, uh, migrant workers in Canada is that we often don’t see them as humans with a family who they’ve left behind or who have, you know, sort of complex emotions.
And, you know, we, we, that kind of sphere is so hidden from us. And I really wanted to. Paint a picture for people of what this program is like, not just in terms of working conditions and living conditions, but emotionally the, the emotional turmoil of being separated often for, you know, 40 years from your family for most of the year, and, and what kind of impact that has on them with the same kind of nuance and complexity that we would treat.
You know, a family here in Canada. So that was kind of the seed for the story. And, um, I was lucky enough to get funding through the Travers foreign corresponding fellowship, which allowed me and a photographer and Melissa Renwick to go down to Mexico and, and start to. Meet with the families there.
So we met with ministry of labor officials in Mexico. We lived with migrant worker families before they set out for their annual trip to Canada. We sat in on their training sessions. It allowed me to cover this story in a much richer fashion than had I just been covering it from, from Toronto. And you know, going out to farms here and establish a trust that I wouldn’t have been able to establish how to not.
Spend that time with their families and during that kind of research and time in the field, we came Artemio’s family. We spent a significant amount of time during our trip to Mexico staying with them. I was intrigued by the impact that this program has had on his family and in particular, and what that kind of says about the program as a whole.
And that’s why we decided to kind of focus this story around his family and use that as the way to explore the flaws in it.
Jordan: When you started digging in, you mentioned, um, you’ve got a whole bunch of complaints that had been filed. What kind of stories did you find as you talked to these workers and read the complaints?
Sara: Yeah, I mean, the complaints and what we were hearing from workers themselves really jived. Um, and in some cases we were able to verify what workers were telling us by referring back to this trove of complaints that we’d received. And I mean. I knew as the reporter that, you know, there’s been cases of abuse, but I think I was, you know, I read through 3,100 of these complaints and started pulling out certain themes that were recurring through all of them.
And it was just heartbreaking. I mean, the disposability of the workers, the violence and the abuse, that some phase, the racism and the things you’re talking about, workers being told that they’re, you know, Mexican garbage, that they’re lazy, they’re stupid. Um, workers being threatened with guns.
Workers being denied the right to drink water while they’re working in the fields. You know, under a hot sun. You can imagine the health impact of that.
Sara: You know, what came up time and time again in the complaints is workers saying, you know, we’re treated like slaves. We’re treated like production is more important than us as humans.
And I think that the system allows us. To dehumanize these workers. You know, we’ve sort of convinced ourselves that they’ve, they’ve come here to work. This is a win-win. They’re supporting their family back home. And, you know, I, I think that there is something fundamentally racist about a system that allows us to treat a certain set of workers differently because of their country of origin or the color of their skin.
And, you know, the living and working conditions that these people are working under would be so far from unacceptable in a Canadian. For any other Canadian worker. And yet the system allows that. And I think that is a really fundamental problem
Jordan: When you say the system allows it. Are there things that are supposed to happen that aren’t happening, or is there nothing in the system to protect them?
Sara: Well, I think it really goes back to these workers immigration status. The fact that they are enclosed work permits that are tied to a single employer. Unlike most workers who, even if they come from abroad, they come here, they gain permanent residents, and They have mobility in the labor market.
These workers don’t, um, they’re sort of, or you’re going home.
Yeah. If you, you know, if you complain, you really fundamentally risk being sent back to Mexico and losing this source of income. Um, so you’re in such a position of dependence and so it is really the street. You know, structurally, the program puts these workers at risk because they’re not really empowered to say, you know, this isn’t acceptable.
Um, or I’m gonna, you know, if you don’t treat me appropriately, I’m going to move to a different employer who will. So that kind of fundamental right is, is taken away from them. And I think it’s also this concept of, you know, if you’re good enough to come here and work for eight months, why aren’t you good enough to become a permanent resident?
You know, not every worker wants. That option, but at least by giving them the ability to choose some workers would, would be able to devote themselves full time to this work, which is something the industry says it needs. You know, we have a labor shortage. Um, so, so, you know, I sort of questioned the why these workers in particular are, are not granted the same, right to permanent status in Canada that any other way. Worker is
Jordan: So tell me, um, just to pick up the thread of our story from the beginning, what happened to our tempo and why he’s so emblematic for the problems with this program?
Sara: Yeah. So when we met his, his wife at Blanca in Mexico, what we learned was that basically her husband left for Canada one year and didn’t come back.
And. Um, the family had never really found out what happened. All they knew that he w was that he was found dead in a bathroom in Chicago. Um, and they had been kind of living with this mystery for, you know, 30 years. And I’ll hopefully let people read the story and find out exactly what, what happened.
Um, but essentially what we were able to piece together through, um, freedom of information request through looking through his. Letters through digging into the farm that he was working in a working at was that, you know, he seems to have encountered a significant degree of distress on, on that farm or during his time in Canada.
And. I think what happened to him is emblematic of the problems in this program, because again, it comes down to the lack of choice for workers, the, the lack of ability to move employers if it’s, you know, if it’s abusive or not working out. And we know that in his kind of final days, he had pledged to the Mexican consulate in Canada to send him to a different farm, to a former employer.
And that request was turned down. Um, he was sent back. He was on his way back to Mexico, uh, when he died. And what really struck me about his story is that 30 years on from his death, we see the same complaints over and over again. That workers find themselves stuck in an abusive situation or a situation where they’re not getting along with their employer or they’re having issues with their employer, and they plead to the Mexican consulate for help, and they are.
They don’t receive it. And the Mexican consulate has a officials in Canada that exists supposedly to help workers. And what I found time and time again in, in, um, the complaints was that workers would describe often horrific cases of abuse to the Mexican consulate. And they would be told to just.
Suck it up basically, or they would be sent back to Mexico. So you know, all these avenues that supposedly exist to help workers are not working as they are supposed to. And again, that just reinforces the vulnerability that that these workers face.
Jordan: What did the governments of Mexico and of Canada, I guess say to you when. You came with all this evidence that something was wrong with the program?
Sara: I mean, I think that there’s a degree of acknowledgment on both sides that the program needs improvement. And you know, the federal government has taken steps, um, over the past couple of years to provide some extra protection.
So, for example, um, now if a worker, um, can, can document abuse. Um, there is a process to provide them with an open work permit, which allows them to find a different job. And what’s interesting about that is that in August, um, the government granted its first, um, open work permit to a worker who was able to document abuse.
And the circumstances that he described are so similar to what Artemio described 30 years ago. Um, which I think really shows you how. Little has been done over that course of time. Um, but you know, even that Avenue has some significant problems. It’s not super accessible from what we sort of found in our research to workers.
So I think it kind of remains to be seen with this new, you know, with the liberals being reelected, what additional steps they’re going to. They’re going to take. Um, they’re, you know, I think there has been an acknowledgement that workers should have a, a pathway to permanent residency. Almost all of the political parties except the conservatives have acknowledged them.
Um, so we’ll see what happens over the next few years. But the Mexican government was really interesting because. I think that they know and recognize that there is exploitation happening, but again, the way that the program is structured, Mexico is essentially in competition with those nine other countries that are sending workers to, to get the spots on the program.
Because if an employer decides, you know, these Mexican workers are a bit too feisty. They can just change countries and then Mexico loses those remittances. So there’s a huge amount of pressure to, I think, encourage workers not to rock the boat. And we actually saw that in the training programs that workers are sort of constantly reminded, don’t forget, like lots of people want to be on this program.
So, you know, work hard, don’t cause problems, you know? So right from the get go, workers are kind of socialized. Not to speak out, but the other problem is that there is a, not a lot of information sharing between Mexican government and the Canadian government, which again, may come back to the Mexican authorities are, are worried about losing their position in the program.
But for example, the complaints that I was able to obtain are not shared. Um, except for very selectively with the Canadian authorities, which makes it very difficult for the officials here to investigate. So there has been a change in government as well in Mexico and, and, and so there might be some shifts.
There as well. Um, it’s sort of a more labor friendly government. Um, so yeah, I think the next few years will be interesting in terms of how the two countries interact.
Jordan: The thing that kind of drove it home to me, uh, the desperation behind the program was that after losing her husband. Sure this program, our tomatoes wife signed up for it.
Sara: Yeah. That, that was the other thing that really drew me into their story is it really shows the intergenerational nature of this program. Again, like a lot of the messaging around the program is that it’s a way out of poverty and yes, it’s a, it is a vital financial lifeline, but in many ways it is also reinforcing intergenerational dependence on the program.
And you know, these workers aren’t. Making tons of money that the amount of money that they end up sending home is less than the, you know, the average income in, in Mexico. They are certainly not becoming wealthy. And you know, not only as Blanca, a migrant farm worker, her kids are as well. So, you know, it’s, it’s two generations who have participated in the program now.
And so part of this story was also exploring whether. How accurate that narrative around this is a way out of poverty for workers, a in a way to kind of, um, develop their communities. And I think while there is some, some truth to the financial lifeline element, I think we do need to interrogate whether it’s truly changing or transforming their life circumstances.
Jordan: When Canadians think of migrant workers, do they even consider this program? I know that, you know, if you had asked me before your story, what would pop into my head? It would have been those undocumented workers crossing the border to work in California or Texas or wherever, and there’s just no knowledge about this existing.
Sara: Again, I think, I think especially in cities where so just connected from. From the labor that’s, that’s being done outside, you know, even the downtown core. Um, and I think a lot of, yeah, a lot of people don’t know this program exists unless you live in, you know, Niagara or Leamington where it’s, you know, very obvious you don’t see these workers.
And even if you live in rural Ontario, you know, we’re such a vast country, but you don’t, you don’t see them in the fields necessarily. You don’t see where they’re living. It’s all very invisible to us. But yeah. You know, at the same time, these programs, these temporary guest worker programs, if you want to call them that aren’t, they’re expanding everywhere.
They’re expanding in Canada. They’re expanding in the U S and it’s really, I think, fueled by this huge inequality between central America, Mexico, and North America. And. I guess one of the narratives that I’ve come up against in this reporting is that, you know, they’ve chosen to come here and so like, don’t complain about it.
Don’t complain about what you find when you get here. And. I hope with this story that we’re able to show just how little choice people have. You know, in Blanca, in our Tammy’s town, you know, a various gun violence in the streets, there are almost no jobs available for an impoverished person to, to make a living.
And, and these are the forces that are. Driving people to come here and they’re making a contribution to our economy.
Jordan: Thanks for shedding some light on it, so thank you.
Sara Mojtehedzadeh, working wealth reporter at the Toronto Star. That was the Big Story. For more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. We always have something cooking if you like, you can subscribe right now to our new podcast hosted by myself. It’s called The Gravy Train. It’s about the life and legacy of Toronto’s infamous crack smoking mayor Rob Ford. You can find that at frequencypodcastnetwork.com or at thegravytrainpodcast.com and of course you can subscribe to this podcast, to The Gravy Train, to any of our podcasts, wherever you get them on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, or on Spotify or any other platform you enjoy.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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