Saturday 25 July 2020

Our Migrant Farm Workers

Edgar Sulla Puma cannot speak.  He can merely utter noises with various states of emotion which his caregivers must try to interpret.  Nine years ago, when he could speak, he spoke no English..  His caregivers only speak English.

 Edgar weighs 122 pounds. He cannot eat.. He gets food pumped intravenously into his stomach .There is a plug above his throat which gets removed regularly so that his lungs can get extra oxygen.  He has braces on both his legs but cannot put weight on them.  Rather, he spends his whole day being pushed around in a wheelchair.  He has an accordion type brace on his right arm in order to keep it an appropriate distance from the rest of his body.  He wears a bandage on his left hand which can be removed from time to time.  When it is removed he tries to grasp the hand of whoever is caring for him.

Edgar recently "celebrated" his thirty-fifth birthday.  He lives in the room next door to me at my retirement residence.  Needless to say he is, by far, our youngest resident. His mere being here helps keep me from feeling sorry for myself.

On February 6th, 2012 there was a horrible traffic accident just west of Wellesley, on the edge of Waterloo Region.  For reasons unknown, a transport truck went through a stop sign and smashed into a bus carrying twelve young migrant workers back to their residence after a full day's work on a southwestern Ontario farm.  The drivers of both vehicles and eleven of the twelve workers were killed instantly.  Curiously, nobody knew anything about the workers.  It took a few days to even find out their home country. All that was known was that they spoke Spanish. (I can't help but contrast that lack of interest with the immense and continued outpouring of real interest in the well-being of the Humboldt Broncos).

The twelfth passenger in the bus, the one who survived, was airlifted for medical care to Hamilton.  That passenger was Edgar.  His home country, and that of all his former colleagues, is Peru.

Canadians don't really care about the nearly 60,000 migrant farmworkers who come and tend the crops that feed us and the workers know it.  My friend, JoAnn Reitzel, sees them from time to time in the Waterdown area of Hamilton, when they come in from nearby farms.  She tries to make eye contact with them.  Invariably, they shyly look the other way.  They must think of themselves as inferior people, a necessary step toward accepting racist treatment.

Recently, we were compelled to pay attention to them when several of them turned out to have tested positive for the coronavirus.  Premier Doug Ford, who clearly couldn't care less about their well-being, exhorted them to come forward and get tested."  We'll even send buses to take you to get tested" he shouted in English at Queen's Park several hundred kilometres away.  He couldn't figure out why they would not come and get tested, even as they were frightened that somehow they would lose their jobs and be automatically sent home.  So then he said that they could just go ahead and work alongside each other even if they tested positive.

This is when the Windsor Essex County Health Unit had to step in and order those who tested positive away from work.

 Well, then who is going to pick our asparagus?  Surely, we wouldn't expect the farm corporation to pay them or look after their lodgings while they are sick, even if they got sick on the job!

That was last week's story.  Those who tested positive have been placed in various motels and hotels hotels in the Essex County area.  This week, the Windsor Star published an expose showing pictures of the very meagre amount of food these grown men were given to live on in the course of a day.  To quote the story with the pictures . "In  a small doggy bag take out box are a couple bites of grilled chicken, a modest scoop of plain rice and a few spoonfuls of dried broccoli and carrots.  Next to it on the floor, a small bottle of juice.  Left outside the motel room door, that's the meal awaiting one of the grown men among the migrant farmworkers placed in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19."

The next day,the Star published reactions from the heads of farm corporations who pointed out that it is not their job to feed the men, but rather that of the Red Cross.

What is wrong with this picture?  Why, in this plentiful country do we need to call in the Red Cross in order to feed people?  Why do the farm corporations feel no responsibility for the situation?

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program was started in 1966.  Workers from third world countries, almost always in this hemisphere, leave their families in the spring and work in Canada until the late fall.  Then they come again the next year.  For many of them this is their whole working life.  The money that they earn goes home to feed their families but many of them spend more than half of their lives in this country.

When I was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board one such man appeared in front of me.  He was from Jamaica and had been coming to this country annually for about twenty years.  His claim to be a refugee was harmed by the fact that he was continually returning to his home country.  That is not a good thing to do if you want to convince me that you will be persecuted there.  We only have one life, however, and here was a good man, paying Canadian taxes and employment insurance.  I think I bent the law are little bit to let him in.  That being said, his case was not appealed.  I am not aware of anyone else who tried this route stay in the country

Many working couples who can afford it apply and have caregivers come for their children under a program called the Live-In Caregiver Program.  These people can come and stay for as many years as they are needed.. Unlike agricultural workers, they can often switch employers and they can eventually apply for permanent residence in Canada.

What is the difference?  I suspect that the difference is that particular Canadian citizens who often know how to tug at the levers of power, grow to know and love particular caregivers.  Therefore, they go to bat for them and probably speak to their Members of Parliament on their behalf.

Agricultural workers, on the other hand, don't get to know us personally. They pay Canadian taxes and employment insurance.  I think this is wrong.  I think that it breeds racism.  Further, these are good hard-working people, family people who could become good Canadian citizens.  This demographic  is more advantageous insofar as paying taxes is concerned than the aged nanny who has no family here  I would like to see the law changed to accommodate these farmworkers and to revert to the principal that everyone working in this country should have the right to do so legally and to eventually become a citizen..

As for Edgar, there are questions about him about which I don't know the answers.  The big one is who is paying for his residence here in Caroline Place coupled with round-the-clock personal care?  I suspect that there has been an insurance settlement.  It is the least that we could give him in the circumstances.


  1. Well said my friend. I couldn't agree more.

    1. What a pleasant surprise to hear from you,David! How are you doing?

  2. Very powerful, David. On an interesting note, Santi and I were talking about migrant workers over lunch today, and we even mentioned the accident in which your friend Edgar was so gravely injured

  3. It is great to hear from you,Gabriel. As far as I am concerned, you are the original blogger. I had never heard of such activity before I met you.
    How is Santi doing? Am I correct in that he is now coaching soccer?

  4. I will try harder with your inspiration.

    Derek, I have known you a long time, originally from Trinity Church, but I do not know you well what I have noticed over the years is that your opinions on things seem to match mine.

  5. I am rereading this blog a year later and I realize that I had misunderstood that Derek to whom I was speaking. Now I know it was Derek Mowat. My apologies, Derek. I have not spoken to you for a long time. How are you doing?