Twelve years ago I attended a film screening that changed my life. Min Sook Lee’s National Film Board documentary, El Contrato, inspired my PhD thesis and led to over a decade of research and community work with migrant workers. The film, which profiles workers in the greenhouse industry of Leamington, Ont., brought in through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, portrays how a group of men from Mexico faced painful annual separations from their families without ever being given the chance to immigrate to Canada. It also explores their repeated exposure to dangerous chemicals and other workplace hazards without proper training or equipment, and the deportation threats they faced if they complained about their working conditions.
Watching the film made me and many others feel uncomfortable. How could these conditions be condoned in our own collective backyard, affecting the workers silently sustaining our much-celebrated local food system? Lee’s documentary increased public awareness of these workers and spawned a growing interest among academic, community and labour rights groups. Yet sadly, neither the film nor this subsequent engagement has seemed to make inroads in changing the difficult conditions faced by migrant workers.
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Lee’s follow-up film, Migrant Dreams, which has its world broadcast premiere on TVO Wednesday at 9 p.m., paints a more complex and disturbing picture that shows how, in some ways, the situation for migrant farm workers has only gotten worse. Again focused on the Leamington greenhouse industry, Lee’s main subjects are a group of primarily Indonesian women workers employed through the more recently introduced low-wage stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
In Migrant Dreams, we see how workers face concerns similar to their Mexican counterparts, such as dismal living conditions, health and safety risks, and constant fear of deportation, but new challenges, too. Workers struggle to pay off significant debts to recruiters, which can result in extortion charges. There are employers who deduct rent from workers’ pay, even when they are not living on their property. One group of workers unknowingly become “illegal” without being told that their contracts have expired, and some have their homes broken into and personal documents seized. There are painful family separations of up to four years.
How did this situation arise?
The seasonal agricultural workers program was initiated in 1966, following years of farmers lobbying the government. Other jurisdictions, such as the United States, Europe and Australia, had long been relying on temporary migration schemes to support agricultural industries, and Canadian farmers argued that amid changing economic and social contexts, local workers could no longer be persuaded to work for minimum wage at difficult, demanding and often dangerous seasonal jobs. Rather than allow workers who moved to Canada to fill this labour demand to properly immigrate to the country, the federal government’s response was framed as a temporary fix to the exceptional needs of the agricultural industry. Bilateral agreements were negotiated first with Jamaica, and subsequently with other Caribbean nations and Mexico, to allow the import of workers for up to eight months each year. Some of these workers have been coming to Canada for decades, severely rupturing their family ties, without ever having the chance to immigrate.
Fifty years later, the ranks of seasonal agricultural workers have swelled to over 40,000 positions in 2015. The program has effectively become permanent, with virtually no changes in its inherent structure or contracts since its introduction.
Meanwhile, over the past 15 years, successive federal governments have vastly expanded other streams of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, including low-wage and agricultural streams, which do not face the same restrictions or oversight as even the highly imperfect seasonal agricultural one. Workers in these programs can come from any country, work in a wide variety of industries, and stay in Canada for up to four years, after which they must leave for at least another four. This extended stay is particularly attractive to greenhouse employers, whose operations run 12 months a year, and is part of the reason for the drastic rise in its use: in 2015, over 11,000 agricultural positions were approved in these streams. Because the governments of the source countries for these programs are not involved in worker placement, private recruiters have filled the role, and the results have been a disaster for many. For example, debt bondage, where workers are told they must work off huge fees paid to these recruiters, has since risen, and workers thus face the risk of extreme exploitation. This is the scenario we see unfold in Migrant Dreams.
While deeply sad and disturbing, Migrant Dreams is also a human and hopeful film, portraying the workers not as helpless victims but as active resisters who disagree with and in some cases challenge their exploitation. Some of the most touching moments are found watching migrant mothers connect with their children in Indonesia over teary cell phone calls. They wonder if their dreams of building a better life for their kids will ever be fulfilled, given the huge and unexpected pay deductions they face.
In the happiest moment, we watch two workers who met and fell in love in Canada get married — a transgender Hindu man and his Muslim spouse. In Indonesia, such a union would have faced both social and legal restrictions, but in Canada, a room full of cheerful onlookers supports the couple as they celebrate their love. Still, even this joyful moment is tainted by the vulnerabilities they face, with one of the newlyweds reflecting, “I’m relieved, actually not really since I have to explain it to the recruiter tomorrow at the farm. Maybe … I’m a little scared … We not free yet.”
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected on the promise of progressive change, and they have already prioritized a review and reform of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. While we wait for the review’s recommendations, expected this fall, migrant workers and allies are concerned that the agricultural streams of the program, including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, may continue to be viewed as exceptional — and therefore may not benefit from increased rights, such as the right to permanent residency.
What has changed for the better in the years since El Contrato’s release is the vast array of community, labour and faith groups, as well as individual Canadians and some employers, who are aligning with workers and calling for change. On Sept. 5, activist collective Justicia for Migrant Workers began a Harvesting Freedom caravan to raise awareness of the issues facing migrant farm workers in its self-proclaimed ground zero: Leamington. The caravan will weave its way through various Ontario cities until it ends up in Ottawa on Thanksgiving weekend, with each stop highlighting potential changes to the status quo, particularly the right to unite families.
Once again, Min Sook Lee’s filmmaking will challenge viewers to consider if this hidden aspect of Canada is in accord with more celebrated images of the country. This time, we must not react with sadness, but with resolve to make things right. Do we want to continue to build a nation on the backs of exploited temporary foreign workers, or do we wish to create an inclusive society that welcomes people as valued members of our society? By allowing viewers an intimate window into the painful realities of migrant workers, Migrant Dreams serves as a poignant call for Canadians to be honest with themselves about the reality of our immigration and food production systems.
Janet McLaughlin is an assistant professor of health studies and a research associate with the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Project.
Watch the documentary:
Learn more about the making of Migrant Dreams, and the state of migrant labour in Canada today.