From TheRecord.com, Valerie Hill, Record staff, 21 Apr 2011.
WATERLOO [ONTARIO] — Pass by any farm in southwestern Ontario and chances are the fields will be filled with migrant workers bent over in labour, a united nations of hard working but largely invisible people.
“There are housing problems, human rights problems, exploitation problems,” said Aaraon Diaz Mendiburo, a social worker whose interest in migrant workers led him to create the film Matices: Temporary Migration in Canada. The 54 minute production will be screened at the Registry Theatre, Saturday 10 a.m. as part of the free Local Focus 4 Film Festival.
Diaz Mendiburo is a native of Mexico and first came to Waterloo in 2005 with an undergraduate degree in social work. Unable to work here, he volunteered with the literacy group, Frontier College, which sent him to Leamington to help migrant workers improve their English. Instead, he became their champion, infuriated by the treatment many received. Diaz Mendiburo had found a cause and it has fueled his life.
Supported by a scholarship, Diaz Mendiburo completed a graduate degree in social work and is now working on a doctorate in social anthropology from The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is in Canada as both a visitor and researcher, thanks to many Canadians who have supported him and his work, provided a place to live, food and even a car.
“It’s a big issue,” Diaz Mendiburo said in an interview at Wilfrid Laurier University’s International Migration Research Centre, where his work on behalf of migrant workers has garnered him great respect from his colleagues.
The research centre’s Janet McLaughlin, a post doctoral fellow, created the music and helped produce the film which she has screened at many conferences.
“It’s about human respect and dignity,” she said. “In our research we found a lot of negativity. We’ve heard stories of the sick and injured, and they had nothing. Twenty percent of workers didn’t have access to OHIP cards.” And the problems are growing as more migrant workers come to Canada seeking opportunities.
Diaz Mendiburo said that migrant worker programs have been cropping up around the world: England, Switzerland, Australia, Germany, Spain and France providing these countries with inexpensive labour. The workers themselves seek such opportunities to earn enough money to send home for their families in Mexico, Philippines, Thailand as well as South and Central America.
In Canada, the migrant worker program was launched by the federal government in 1966 to provide farm labour jobs for workers from the Caribbean, jobs that few Canadians were willing to do. But what started as a trickle is now a full blown torrent. Under the temporary foreign workers program, numbers nearly doubled: from 100,436 in 1998 to 192,519 in 2008.
Diaz Mendiburo said that workers are now allowed to work in hotels, construction, live-in caregivers, in the Alberta oil sands and even in Tim Hortons coffee shops. Providing jobs for workers from undeveloped countries might sound magnanimous but there are other, less appealing factors.
McLaughlin pointed out that the workers are here at least eight months of the year, often for most of their adult life though they can never get citizenship. They usually earn minimum wage but have to pay employment insurance premiums, income taxes, pension and health care like any Canadian, the difference being they cannot collect unemployment insurance and despite paying taxes, their children cannot attend school.
In Ontario, seasonal agricultural workers make up just under 14 per cent of total migrant workers with the largest proportion, nearly 18,000, in Ontario followed by nearly 4,000 in Quebec.
Diaz Mendiburo said that while the workers are happy to have jobs, if they complain about conditions there are hundreds of other eager workers waiting for a chance to take their place. He said that in his research he has been particularly interested in how the outside community relates to them, if at all. He also said that the workers’ families are so dependent on the wages being earned in Canada, they simply tolerate the injustices.
McLaughlin added that when a Canadian feels taken advantage of, they have the option to quit. Not so the migrant worker, creating an imbalance of power in the employer-employee relationship.
Diaz Mendiburo concluded, “They are easy to control.”
Migrant workers film
Matices: Temporary Migration in Canada will be screened as part of the Local Focus 4 Film Festival, presented by the Multicultural Cinema Club at the Working Centre
Saturday, April 23
122 Frederick St.