Production Celebrates Migrant Farm Workers

Posted Sep 20th, 2011 in In the News

9 Sep 2011 The Tribune (Welland)

QMI Agency  

ST. CATHARINES — It wasn’t easy to convince many of the migrant workers in Niagara to speak about their experiences working in the community, Brock University professor David Fancy said.


And it was even more of a challenge to get farmers to tell their side of the story. In fact, none wanted their names used.

Fancy spoke with the workers and farmers as part of a new documentary theatre production by neXt Company Theatre of Niagara called Growing Together: A Celebration of Niagara’s Migrant Workers.


The stage production delves into the lives and concerns of migrant workers employed in Niagara through live theatre and video.


Fancy got the idea for the production several years ago as he was driving through Niagara.


“ I got here and I’m happily driving inmy air-conditioned car and I see these people working in the fields,” he said. “ I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to chat with some migrant workers about their experience.”


The show was created by collaborating with the workers. Writers would work on the script and then some migrant workers vetted it, Fancy said.


While he admitted many were afraid to tell their stories because they feared it would put their jobs at risk, Fancy said a few were keen to communicate with the community.


Some of the workers said they live in Niagara for eight months out of a year, away from their families, but still feel alienated from the community. They want people to understand their realities, Fancy said.


“ They’re also really proud of what they do,” he said. “ But sometimes they don’t feel that they have the right to speak up about concerns like, ‘ We want a mask for pesticides, we want a bathroom.’ ”


There are roughly 4,000 migrant workers in Niagara from Mexico, the Caribbean, Guatemala and South East Asia, Fancy said. They do various jobs on farms and vineyards in the region, including working in greenhouses, fields and vineyards.


Last year, the theatre company staged a smaller version of the production. It was challenging because the workers were afraid of being sent home without appeal. So the company blurred the migrants’ faces in the videos.


This time, some are willing to speak about their experiences and reveal their identities.


While they want to feel more integrated into the community, migrant workers are looking for more protection.


“ The reality is, some of these people work 100 hours a week and they’ve only had health and safety legislation since 2006,” Fancy said. “ They pay into CPP and EI and they can’t claim it.”


Alexander Ramirez is the cofounder of DOAM, or Dignity for Agriculture Migrant Workers.


He’s been working with migrant workers since 2010 and facilitatedmany of the interviews for the production.


The issues discussed were delicate, Ramirez said. 

“ What I saw working with them is they have a sense of intimidation and you can’t blame them,” he said. “ Many of them, when they’re at work and they get sick or injured, they’re afraid to bring it forward because they can be repatriated.”


One concern workers had was they are forced to work on statutory holidays without holiday pay — something required for Canadian workers, he said.


While Ramirez acknowledged the potential for job loss if the workers are treated the same financially as Canadian workers, he said other factors need to be taken into consideration.


Some work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day and live in houses with 18 other workers.


“ Some are sleeping in rooms with 18 other people, in bunkbeds where they can’t even sit up without bumping their heads,” he said. “ I don’t know any Canadians who would sign up for that.”


Ramirez and Fancy said the one thing that stands out is how proud the workers are of their jobs, despite some concerns.


And what about the farmers’ point of view?


Fancy was able to speak with three farm owners on the condition of anonymity.


“ I told them what we were doing and said we have a migrant worker on tape who says some pretty inflammatory things about the migrant worker program,” he said. “ Each farmer said they felt 80 to 90% of the farms ran good operations. One person I spoke with said he drives the workers into town once a week to do shopping.”


Another farm owner thought more legal protection for the workers would not harm the industry, Fancy said. Instead, it would make it easier for employers to get the same workers back every year, he added.


“ She said then the bad-apple farmers would have to pull their socks up,” Fancy said.


About 40 people are involved What: Growing Together: A Celebration of Niagara’s MigrantWorkers Where: Sean O’Sullivan Theatre, Brock University When: Sept. 18, 7 p. m. Tickets: $ 12 — call 905-6885550, ext. 3257 in the production and Fancy said if they continue developing it, he would like to interview elected officials about the program and treatment ofmigrants.


The issue is important to Niagara because the region needs to think about sustainability, Fancy said.


“ Occasionally, people try to run them off the roads or call them names, but generally, they like it here,” he said. “ They want to be part of the long-term cultural sustainability.”


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