Alumna speaks to UN about the plight of migrant workers in Ontario

A pair of hands, white ones, offer up deep red, purple and green fruit and vegetables in an ad that encourages Ontarians to buy locally, but that image drives Evelyn Encalada Grez crazy.

“Where are the migrant workers in this who are actually producing the food?,” asks Encalada Grez  (BA Hons. ’98, MA ’03). “I get so frustrated by those ads to buy local. We hardly think of who is producing these produces. Most of our local tomatoes come from Leamington where several greenhouses each employ over 100 migrant workers.” This is agribusiness, not the typical small family farm the ads evoke. Seasonal workers plant, tend, harvest and process much of the fruit and vegetables in this province and most of their hands are not white.

Right: Encalada Grez

Encalada Grez says the migrant workers in this province are invisible. She wants people to be aware of their existence and the hardships they’re forced to endure, including a lack of rights, poor living and working conditions, and long hours. Encalada Grez has worked with Caribbean and Mexican migrant farm workers for the last eight years. She has seen the poverty, marginalization, lack of services and isolation most migrant workers face in Ontario first hand. A researcher with Rural Women Making Change, based at the University of Guelph, Encalada Grez was one of four members invited to speak at the United Nations in New York City two week ago. There she relayed a story to UN staff and members of national and international non-governmental organizations about a migrant worker who had her legs run over by a tractor twice. Her employer and the consulate were keen to ship her back home without compensation or even medical treatment, she says.

Justicia for Migrant Workers, a Toronto, and now Vancouver, volunteer-driven organization Encalada Grez co-founded in 2001 to promote the rights of Caribbean and Mexican migrant workers, got involved and informed the injured worker of her right to worker’s compensation, says Encalada Grez, who later called the police to have the woman escorted from the farm amid fears she would be sent back before having the chance to apply for worker’s compensation.

“A lot of women are quite controlled because they live on the farm of their employer,” says Encalada Grez. Another migrant worker she knows was repatriated when her employer found out she was pregnant. Injured and pregnant workers are not considered cost effective.

“The UN couldn’t believe that it was happening in Canada,” says Encalada Grez. “A lot of people get surprised even here in Canada. They think it happens in the US, not in Canada.”

The UN held the briefing, titled “The Situation of Rural Women: Providing the Tools for Economic Empowerment” in observance of the first International Day of Rural Women. “Many of the issues affecting rural women in general are the same for migrant Mexican women,” says Encalada Grez, who came to Canada from Chile 27 years ago. “And if they protest their conditions, they risk repatriation back to their country.” That’s a problem when the family back home is depending on the income. “Migrant workers fall through the cracks of the system.”

For the last three years, as part of her PhD with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and as a researcher at York’s International Secretariat for Human Development, Encalada Grez has followed migrant workers back to Mexico. There she studies how the migrant work affects the family. Many of the migrant workers are single mothers who leave their children in the care of relatives or even neighbours while they try to earn enough in Ontario to free their offspring from devastating poverty.

Encalada Grez is hoping that apprising the UN of the issues will be one step toward change. “The third world exists within the first world. It’s much more convenient sometimes to turn a blind eye and ignore what’s going on here and instead to focus on a different country,” says Encalada Grez.

One of the ways migrant workers deal with their situation is through silence, but Encalada Grez says silence isn’t working. What she wants is for seasonal workers to be given citizenship rights while they’re in Canada. Right now, she says, the system is creating a second class of workers whose situation makes them vulnerable to exploitation, especially when injured on the job.

To watch the panel presentation at the United Nations in New York City, go to the Women Watch Web site, a United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality, scroll down to where it says panel discussion and click on the DPI/NGO: NGO Briefing link.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer