Picked Over

The neglected mi­grant work­ers help­ing to make Cana­dian wine

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Corey Mintz

Ar­mando is not happy with the av­o­ca­dos. He’s cut open one of the over­ripe fruits, pur­chased from a su­per­mar­ket in St. Catharines, On­tario. The in­te­rior is brown and mushy; the pit, done cling­ing to life, is ready to roll out in de­feat. “At home, there are so many,” says Ar­mando, who works ten to twelve hours a day cul­ti­vat­ing On­tario wine grapes. “In Guer­rero, av­o­ca­dos fall on the ground. Here, they are no good.” Ar­mando was born in the state of Guer­rero, Mex­ico, in a vil­lage with no name and a pop­u­la­tion of about forty. His wife and three chil­dren live far­ther north in Sonora, in a two-room house owned by his sis­ter. He spends the win­ters there with them. But for eight months of the year, he lives in Canada, plant­ing, man­ag­ing, and har­vest­ing Caber­net Franc, Mer­lot, Ries­ling, Baco Noir, and other grapes for On­tario wines. I can’t use Ar­mando’s real name — or the names of any of the mi­grant labour­ers in this story. Sea­sonal agri­cul­tural work­ers re­turn to their jobs each year at the re­quest of their Cana­dian em­ploy­ers, who must es­tab­lish that the po­si­tion can­not be filled by a Cana­dian. With their fam­ily’s for­tunes tied to this ap­proval, it’s un­wise for sea­sonal work­ers to speak out about their lives here. While it’s un­com­mon for work­ers to be fired, those who com­plain or refuse to per­form un­safe work are not asked back the next sea­son. It’s Novem­ber, near the end of Ar­mando’s third sea­son in Canada. His room­mate, Juan, has been com­ing here for

eleven years, much of it spent along­side his fa­ther, who worked here for twen­tyeight years. This pass­ing down through gen­er­a­tions is typ­i­cal of the mi­grant agri­cul­tural worker ex­pe­ri­ence in Canada, fam­ily mem­bers liv­ing and work­ing here for two-thirds of ev­ery year with no clear path­way to cit­i­zen­ship or op­por­tu­nity to gain a foothold in Cana­dian so­ci­ety. Work­ers can change jobs only if both old and new em­ployer agree: the labour­ers are, in ef­fect, bound to their bosses. The Sea­sonal Agri­cul­tural Worker Pro­gram, first in­tro­duced in 1966, is now a stream of the Temporary For­eign Worker Pro­gram, which was es­tab­lished in 1973 to ad­dress labour short­ages in Canada. To qual­ify, ap­pli­cants must be from Mex­ico or par­tic­i­pat­ing Caribbean coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries. In 2017, about 43 per­cent of Canada’s 112,000 paid farm­land work­ers were mi­grants. They pay taxes here but have lim­ited ac­cess to health care (it’s hard to see a doc­tor when you live on a farm and have no ac­cess to a car), and they send most of their earn­ings back home to pro­vide a bet­ter life for their fam­i­lies. Cana­di­ans won’t do the back-break­ing, low-pay­ing work of pick­ing our own pro­duce. For the peo­ple we im­port to work our fields, food not only pro­vides a liveli­hood but is also es­sen­tial for main­tain­ing their men­tal health, for sur­viv­ing in iso­la­tion from their homes and fam­i­lies — which is why Ar­mando and I are talk­ing about av­o­ca­dos.

We’re in the kitchen of a lit­tle house in the Ni­a­gara wine re­gion, where Ar­mando and Juan live for the sea­son. Be­cause they

have more space than other work­ers, they can open the house to guests on Sun­day nights. Not know­ing how many they might feed tonight, Juan keeps mash­ing pota­toes and rolling them in tor­tillas, fry­ing the cylin­ders to a crisp; the stack of flau­tas by the stove grows over the af­ter­noon. Mean­while, Ar­mando smiles to him­self as he qui­etly slices a hunk of beef into strips for carne asada and mar­i­nates frozen shrimp in chilies and Clam­ato for coc­tel de ca­marones. I’ve come here with Aaraón Diaz Mendiburo, who ex­am­ined mi­grant work for his post- doc­toral re­search at the Bal­sil­lie School of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs in Water­loo. “Food is part of our iden­tity, as Mex­i­cans,” says Mendiburo. “For most of the mi­grant work­ers, the foods, how they cook, and what they eat — it’s one of the things that lets them sur­vive in these con­di­tions. It’s like a glue. Without that, I think they wouldn’t re­sist the iso­la­tion in Canada.” The kitchen re­minds Ar­mando of cook­ing for his chil­dren, even though the ra­tio of wages to food prices in Sonora makes it cost pro­hib­i­tive. “In Mex­ico, it’s too ex­pen­sive,” says Ar­mando, shak­ing his head as he dices onions with abon­ing knife. “They pay you 1,300 pe­sos per week. If you’re go­ing shop­ping, one kilo of meat is 150 pe­sos.” Here, he makes an av­er­age of $650 a week — about 9,400 pe­sos. And that’s what it’s all about. No mat­ter how hard the work is or how un­fair the sys­tem can be from the per­spec­tive of Cana­dian labour rights, in Canada Ar­mando can earn in an hour roughly what he makes in a day in Mex­ico. Juan has worked in On­tario, Nova Sco­tia, and Que­bec, pick­ing ev­ery type of pro­duce: let­tuce, cu­cum­bers, as­para­gus, pep­pers, onions. Be­fore Canada, Ar­mando worked in restau­rants in Texas. In Sonora, he picked grapes, as well as wal­nuts, wa­ter­mel­ons, zuc­chini, squash, gar­banzo beans, or­anges, and let­tuce. Let­tuce is the worst. Demon­strat­ing the pos­ture re­quired to cut let­tuce from the earth, Juan bends his waist so his body is folded at an un­com­fort­able ninety de­grees. “All day,” he says. “Twelve hours a day.” Be­cause of the way wine grapes are grown, on vines strung be­tween wooden posts, work­ing in a vine­yard dif­fers from har­vest­ing other types of pro­duce. The va­ri­ety of tasks through the sea­son — plant­ing, set­ting “catch wires” to lift vines so they don’t shade one another, ty­ing vines, prun­ing leaves, har­vest­ing — is less tax­ing on work­ers’ spines, if only be­cause they are not crouch­ing or bend­ing all day. “With grapes,” Juan says, “you’re stand­ing up.” It’s still a ten-hour day, some­times twelve. And there’s no over­time, even at six days a week, seven when they’re re­ally busy. Most mi­grant agri­cul­tural work­ers live in bar­rack-style dorms, where some­times dozens of peo­ple sleep in an open room lined with bunk beds, shar­ing one or two bath­rooms. Work­ers fre­quently have to accept di­lap­i­dated build­ings as their homes for eight months a year. Some­times, there are bed­bugs; work­boots coated in pes­ti­cide from the field may be stored in­side as well. Some labour­ers, af­ter they’ve been here a few sea­sons, share rented houses away from their work­places. This al­lows work­ers more free­dom and the abil­ity to cook — though that is costly. And the com­mute, some­times by bi­cy­cle, eats up what lit­tle free time they have. Be­fore we set­tled into Ar­mando and Juan’s kitchen, Mendiburo and I vis­ited a house in a nearby town, shared by a half- dozen women who work in agri­cul­ture. Their lunches for the week — chicken mole, rice, and corn — sat cool­ing in Tup­per­ware on the kitchen ta­ble. A one-kilo bag of ár­bol chilies, brought from home, was down to scraps. We went to the su­per­mar­ket, where the women bought poblanos, pork cut­lets, chicken, and cilantro, and then to El Bode­gon, a Latino gro­cery in St. Catharines that dou­bles as a money-trans­fer ser­vice. Though they could find other brands at the su­per­mar­ket, the women buy the ones they are fa­mil­iar with from Mex­ico: Maruchan in­stant ra­men, Ariel laun­dry de­ter­gent. Many mi­grants prep meals on Sun­day be­cause they work late the other six days of the week, which doesn’t leave

enough time for each per­son to have a shift cook­ing in their shared kitchen, if it even has a stove.

Ar­mando and juan live in rel­a­tive lux­ury, in a house that be­longed to their em­ployer’s fa­ther. The bun­ga­low they have all to them­selves seems un­touched since his death a cou­ple of years ago, the car­peted bath­room and wood-pan­elled den a mu­seum of 1970s sub­ur­ban taste. Due to their good for­tune, the house is a bit of a com­mu­nity hub to­day — both in­vited and un­ex­pected guests are wel­come for din­ner. “Where is the Valentina?” Ar­mando asks Juan, rum­mag­ing around the kitchen in search of the hot sauce they like, which comes from Guadala­jara. The shrimp dish isn’t spicy enough for him. We of­fer to go to the store while we’re pick­ing up din­ner guests, work­ers from a nearby flower farm, whom Mendiburo has in­vited. Through­out the grow­ing sea­son, when the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion swells with mi­grant work­ers, the lo­cal gro­cery stores set up aisle-end dis­plays fea­tur­ing Mex­i­can in­gre­di­ents, Mendiburo says. But in late fall, as the work­ers fin­ish for the sea­son and head home (where they con­tinue work­ing, for less money), su­per­mar­kets shrink their stock of Mex­i­can goods. So the Valu-mart in Ni­a­gara-on-the-lake is out of the Valentina. The sun is set­ting when we reach the guests’ farm. Three women exit a long, squat build­ing. I want to look around, but Mendiburo warns me not to get out of the car; that there are cam­eras watch­ing, and an out­sider’s face might make an em­ployer sus­pi­cious. Maria, Inés, and Rosa pile into my ren­tal car, chat­ting in Span­ish as we head back to the house. It’s Rosa’s birthday and her first sea­son work­ing here; her friends are hop­ing the meal will cheer her up. The dif­fi­cult work and sep­a­ra­tion from her fam­ily are tak­ing a toll on her men­tal health, her friends tell me. It’s even harder here on the women than the men, Maria says. Back in Mex­ico, she ex­plains, men who go to Canada for work are seen to be mak­ing sac­ri­fices to sup­port their fam­i­lies. Women do­ing the same thing are openly scorned for aban­don­ing their fam­i­lies. But what mat­ters most is send­ing money back home, which the work­ers do ev­ery two weeks. On most farms, ev­ery other Thurs­day, a bus shut­tles work­ers into town to bank, to shop for gro­ceries, or to buy Mex­i­can SIM cards for their phones. For these trips, some work­ers are al­lowed three hours; the women from the flower farm get two. Maria says the queue to trans­fer money is usu­ally thirty min­utes. “We are run­ning all the time,” says Maria. “No time to eat.” Their farm is pro­cess­ing items for the Christ­mas sea­son.

Work­ers can change jobs only if both old and new em­ployer agree: the labour­ers are, in ef­fect, bound to their bosses.

To­mor­row morn­ing, they will re­turn to prun­ing, wrap­ping, and ship­ping trees and wreaths for cold stor­age for the hec­tic De­cem­ber re­tail sea­son. Some­times, work­ers, stir-crazy from their farms, will go into town on Sun­days just to walk around. In Leam­ing­ton, busi­ness own­ers pro­posed an anti-loi­ter­ing by­law that many ob­servers said was in­tended to pre­vent mi­grants from gath­er­ing in pub­lic. Ac­cord­ing to mi­grant-labour ac­tivist Chris Ram­sa­roop, the at­ti­tude in Leam­ing­ton was the most overt, but the sen­ti­ment is com­mon. He men­tions towns across On­tario where com­mu­ni­ties have ob­jected to a school or stor­age fa­cil­ity be­ing con­verted to a bunkhouse — or, as was the case in one town, where a pop­u­lar dough­nut-and­cof­fee fran­chise put up a sign lim­it­ing guests to a thirty-minute stay. Ar­mando in­ter­rupts the chat­ter around the ta­ble with an ex­cited squeal. He’s

dis­cov­ered a bot­tle of Valentina be­hind a bag of potato chips. Dis­as­ter averted, we can eat. The small kitchen ta­ble now fills to over­flow­ing with tor­tillas fried into tostadas, onions and cilantro, beef, shrimp, ar­roz rojo, and two sal­sas: Juan’s Mi­choacán gua­camole of av­o­cado, tomato, onion, and cilantro (more sauce than spread) and Ar­mando’s salsa verde with tomatillo, onion, gar­lic, jalapeno, and cilantro. “That’s how my mom makes it,” says Ar­mando, mak­ing sure I dab some on my taco. The group laughs and re­laxes as they use mi­crowave-soft­ened tor­tillas like gloves to grab fist­fuls of the fried beef. Each time I fin­ish a tostada topped with shrimp, our hosts load up another for me. Peo­ple snack on flau­tas, sip cola, and, for a brief mo­ment, in­dulge in a bit of nos­tal­gia, work­ers from Pue­bla and Oax­aca ar­gu­ing over which re­gion’s mole is bet­ter. When the cook­ies-and-cream cake we had picked up ear­lier comes out, ev­ery­one sings “Las Mañan­i­tas,” the Mex­i­can birthday song, for Rosa, who cries when I drop her off back at the farm.

Within a cou­ple of weeks, Ar­mando has re­turned to Sonora, where he works pick­ing grapes, guavas, and wal­nuts. His old­est child is into soc­cer, and the mid­dle one likes Iron Man. But Ar­mando spends Christ­mas Eve with his youngest daugh­ter, in Mex­ico City, where she is in the hos­pi­tal again, be­ing treated for per­sis­tent kid­ney prob­lems. She is three years old, but Ar­mando says she looks more like a child of one and can­not walk or speak. Ar­mando is able to stay with a cousin in the city and get by on street tacos and tor­tas, which he likes but feels gross eat­ing ev­ery day. The cost of buses and taxis, and of the added time off work, chews up the money he’s spent all year sav­ing. It pains him to be back in Mex­ico yet still be un­able to spend time with his whole fam­ily. “It’s hard for me and my wife. I want to see my other chil­dren. My son calls me and says, ‘Where is my dad? I need you.’” Be­tween work and the hos­pi­tal, he’s barely had time to cook for his kids. In­stead, he has cried, gone to church, and prayed. In early April, Ar­mando’s fam­ily gath­ers at his sis­ter’s house to see him off. The night be­fore his flight, they feast on tamales, tacos, and po­zole. The next day, he hugs his wife and chil­dren good­bye, takes a bus to Mex­ico City, then a plane to Toronto and a bus to wine coun­try. And he is gone for another eight months. A cou­ple of weeks af­ter they re­turned to Canada this spring, I have din­ner with Ar­mando and Juan again. When I ar­rive at the house, the kitchen is hum­ming with a cou­ple of other work­ers from the farm. As we gather at the ta­ble, Juan brings us tor­tillas, which he’s stuffed with pota­toes and sausage and fried to a crisp. We load them up with three sal­sas on the ta­ble: pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a thin sauce of ár­bol chilies. These spicy, crispy bombs are among the best tacos I’ve ever had, and I want to eat as many as I can, but Ar­mando cau­tions me to hold off un­til the meat ar­rives. More than any­thing, Ar­mando is thrilled to share that his youngest daugh­ter’s health has im­proved. In the hos­pi­tal, she be­gan walk­ing a bit, us­ing a cart to steady her­self. He grins

widely as he shows me pho­tos and videos on his phone. The doc­tors say she will even­tu­ally need a new kid­ney, which Ar­mando ex­pects to come from him or his wife. Soon there is a big pile of carne asada on the ta­ble, beef that Juan has fried in some spice he won’t re­veal to me, and a bowl of ce­viche, made with frozen filets of sole. I ask Ar­mando about his plans for the fu­ture and how long he thinks he can do this. Ar­mando owns a small plot of land in Sonora and hopes to build a house on it some­day. I ask about loans and mort­gages and build­ing costs. He says it’s not like that for peo­ple like him. It would cost about $100,000 to build a nice house, he es­ti­mates. In­stead, he ex­pects to hire friends in the build­ing trades to con­struct a home piece by piece, maybe laying foun­da­tion one year and plumb­ing the next, adding on as money becomes avail­able. He has no idea how long it will take to build or when he could even af­ford to be­gin. For now, it’s only a dream. All he can do is keep plug­ging away, work­ing and sav­ing as much as pos­si­ble, hop­ing and pray­ing to avoid the bad luck of ill­ness or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter that could wipe out his sav­ings in an in­stant. In his 2010 book Ar­rival City, Cana­dian jour­nal­ist Doug Saun­ders de­scribes an ideal sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship that can form when mi­grants from poor ru­ral ar­eas re­lo­cate to live and work on the out­skirts of ur­ban eco­nomic cen­tres: ur­ban so­ci­ety ben­e­fits from in­ex­pen­sive labour and cul­tural en­rich­ment, and ru­ral so­ci­ety gains new sources of in­come and eco­nomic mo­bil­ity. But a key el­e­ment of this re­la­tion­ship is free­dom of move­ment: giv­ing mi­grants en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­por­tu­ni­ties and the abil­ity to move their fam­i­lies here would be trans­for­ma­tive for them — and ben­e­fi­cial for Cana­di­ans. Canada’s Temporary For­eign Worker Pro­gram ben­e­fits both par­ties, but we get the bet­ter end of the deal. Canada still has a point sys­tem for skilled for­eign worker im­mi­gra­tion, in which ap­pli­ca­tions are scored up to 100 points for lan­guage, ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence, age, ar­ranged em­ploy­ment in Canada, and adapt­abil­ity. Do we owe points to agri­cul­tural labour­ers who live, work, and pay taxes here for years on end? Or are we only in­ter­ested in trad­ing the bare min­i­mum in ex­change for the hu­man cost of keep­ing pro­duce cheap? Ar­mando would like to im­mi­grate here, maybe open a restau­rant. But his wife doesn’t want to leave Mex­ico. This con­flict is by de­sign: the se­lec­tion process for the Sea­sonal Agri­cul­tural Worker Pro­gram prefers ap­pli­cants who have de­pen­dents back home, so they will be less likely to move here. (Ac­cord­ing to a 2009 Uni­ver­sity of Toronto the­sis by Janet Mclaugh­lin, 94 per­cent of Mex­i­can work­ers are mar­ried.) So Ar­mando says he’ll prob­a­bly only do this for five more years — un­less his kids want to pursue higher ed­u­ca­tion. “My daugh­ter wants to be a doc­tor. If she wants to go to school for that, I have to come back.” If she doesn’t want to keep study­ing, he tells her, “you will be like me.” corey mintz has writ­ten for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the New York Times.

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