Migrant farm workers share their story of labour, life, and exploitation with TSSU

Attendees learned about labour conditions on farms for migrant workers

Attendees learning how to make pico de gallo

By: Jess Dela Cruz, News Writer

Picking up a tomato at the grocery store is a mundane act. However every tomato (like any piece of produce) is touched by the complex interlocking systems of global capitalism.

The invisible elements of labour, health, migration, and even death touch the production of these fruits and vegetables. Many migrant workers come to Canada to provide for their families back home, but are often forced into unsafe or extenuating working conditions. An event held by Fuerza Migrante and the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) was held as a means of increasing awareness about the everyday lives of migrant farm workers and the extreme labour conditions they face. 

The event, held on September 27, was called A Taste for Change: a Cooking Lesson about Migrant Farm Workers. Held at SFU Surrey, attendees learned how to make pico de gallo with fresh ingredients alongside migrant farm workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Argentina. 

Previously known as the Migrant Worker’s Dignity Association (MWSDA),  Fuerza Migrante is a volunteer organization that “assists migrant workers, free of charge, to solve any issues they may have — whether with employers, government institutions, or other issues that may arise in their day-to-day life — always seeking collective solutions that promote organization through an intersectional lens,” as stated on their website. Migrant workers face “unjust working and living conditions as a result of geographic isolation, racialization, [and] truncated access to social services in languages other than theirs,” it further states. 

At the event, tables and chairs were set up in a circle with fresh ingredients: tomatoes, cilantro, lime, onions, and jalepeño. Knives, cutting boards, and bowls were set for everyone to come together and make pico de gallo. 

Alexandra and Alejandro, who work with Fuerza Migrante, hosted the cooking lesson/discussion. Alejandro taught guests how to cut the vegetables and go through the recipe step-by-step, while shining light on myths about migrant farm workers in Canada. Alexandra followed up each myth with the realities of the worker’s everyday lives. 

For example, one of the misconceptions that Alejandro mentioned is that the migrant workers do not pay taxes. Alexandra clarified for the audience that they do — and all with wages that are minimum wage or lower. 

Once everyone was finished making pico de gallo, the workers brought out homemade salsa they had previously made to share. One batch had the most delicious shrimp, and another had jalepaño with finely diced tomatoes and purple onions. 

After salsa and chips the floor was opened for a question and answer period. One of the workers   wanted to know each guests’ areas of study. As the diverse range of TA’s and guests shared their background, he used his phone to record this moment. He later explained that his daughters back home are in university and wanted them to know the possible areas of study and careers to become inspired. He said, “I want my kids to be champions.”

Another worker shared stories about their journey and vulnerable daily life. When they arrive in Canada: “[We] come with nothing, [ . . . ] [the] employer gives [us] a couple of hundred of dollars.” 

They are then expected to buy their own food and the necessities because “the next day, [we] start work on the farm,” he continued. 

The migrant workers are typically out on the fields by 5:30 in the morning and the employer gives them a list of orders and tasks to complete. In a slow season, their shift tends to end around 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. In a busy season, they are out on the fields until between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. In their 12 to 18 hour day, they are on their knees, feet, frequently needing to bend down low, which is strenuous on the body. They only have two 15 minute breaks and one half an hour break. 

The same worker continued to discuss what happens after their long day. They head to their homes exhausted, on the same farms where they work, in very isolated areas that are far away from the cities. He said, “the first thing I want to do is shower and get cleaned.” They then have to cook their dinner and prepare their lunch for the next day. If they can, they call their family back home. A few hours of sleep later, it is time to begin again.

Some of the workers have difficulty recounting their highly emotional stories, with one of them stating he does not want to remember. He stressed that workers miss important milestones and moments with their family back home. They all agreed on the central idea of why they come here: to provide for their families so that they can have better futures. On average, workers send 80% of their income back home. 

One recurring issue for the workers is the lack of quality medical care. One of them shared, in tears, the story of a friend who was injured at work and could not continue. The employer did not want to provide him with care or send him to see a doctor so he was sent back to Mexico. There, he still did not receive treatment and could not come back the following year to work again. Alexandra stepped in to clarify that when workers arrive, they have to pass a medical exam before they enter Canada. They come healthy, but due to the working conditions, many of them get injured or sick and receive little to no medical care. 

The event wrapped up with hugs between workers and attendees, many of whom were in tears. 

One of the migrant workers capped off the event by stating “all of us have been treated with racism. All I ask is that you treat us with respect and dignity.”