Mexican farm workers complain about conditions

Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, Monday 21 May 2001, 12:06 AM EDT

Leamington, Ont.—Mexican migrant farm workers gathered downtown in this western Ontario farming town Sunday to voice complaints about substandard working and housing conditions.

Speaking through translators, the 100 mainly male workers fired off a lengthy list of complaints to a fact-finding mission of labour unions and student activists, headed up by New Democrat MP Joe Comartin from the nearby Windsor-St. Clair riding.

Workers, who pick tomatoes in large green houses, complained about being forced to spray pesticides without any safety protection; living in overcrowded buildings with leaking sewage; working long hours with no overtime pay; lacking proper access to medical care; paying government deductions and receiving nothing in return; and living under the constant threat of being sent back to Mexico if they dare to complain directly to their employers.

The delegation, which is the second such group to visit Leamington in recent weeks, included representatives of the United Farm Workers of America, the Canadian Labour Congress and Students Against Sweatshops.

The United Farm Workers visited Leamington on April 29 after hearing of a temporary work stoppage by Mexican migrant workers who were protesting being left idle and unable to earn sufficient hours of work. About two dozen workers returned to Mexico immediately following the stoppage.

Ontario law prevents agricultural workers from joining or forming unions.

The migrant workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a bleak picture of their lot as they gathered in a church parking lot.

What I've realized here in Canada is that employers don't hire us as human beings. They think we're animals, one worker said. The first threat that they always make is that if you don't like it, you can go back to Mexico.

The fear of being sent back to Mexico also leads to economic exploitation, claimed the workers, who are typically paid $7 an hour, and receive no overtime despite working 12-hour days, 6½ days a week.

Mr. Comartin said Sunday it would take time to verify the workers' complaints. But he stressed that he is especially concerned by tales of workers returning to Mexico before their usual nine-month work term is completed.

I'm not sure how much of their decision to return is the result of coercion, and how much is voluntary. That's what I'm here to find out, he said.

But Mr. Comartin said Canadian governments at all levels need to get involved to ensure the workers receive proper employment standards.

There is really a need for some kind of safety net. It's up to the Canadian government to provide that, he said.

Approximately 3,000 Mexican migrant workers stay in Leamington each year, according to municipal councillor Bill Derbyshire.

Mr. Derbyshire said the migrant workers are welcomed and treated well by the farmers, townspeople, and local businessmen.