Arid harvests for migrant women

Posted by admin on Oct 14th, 2008

October 14, 2008. Lesley Ciarula Taylor. Toronto Star

The difficulties of migrant farm women in rural Ontario that Evelyn Encalada Grez plans to describe to UN workers this week may come as a surprise to her audience, and to people here. “The ads you see for Foodland Ontario when you’re driving into Toronto give you a romantic picture of a rural Canadian family farm,” she said. “The real families behind this agriculture work (as part of) an extended family network that looks after the fields and the children in Mexico so they can come here. They are the ones who produce the food we consume.”

Encalada, who is writing her University of Toronto doctoral thesis on migrant women, said, “What they go through in Canada is not known by Canadians in general. Canada has a reputation as a benevolent country.”

She is one of four members of the Guelph-based Rural Women Making Change organization invited to the United Nations building in New York on Thursday.

Also taking part in the presentation to about 200 UN staff and agency workers will be Belinda Leach, a University of Guelph professor who is director of the Rural Woman group.

“I think the UN is in for a surprise,” Leach said. “They might expect to hear how great things are for rural women here in the `first world.'”

Encalada, 33, says she will have only seven minutes to draw on her seven years of research.

So she intends to focus on the story of one woman, whose leg was broken by a tractor and who only got treatment after Encalada called police to take her from the farm to hospital.

“Usually when workers are injured, they are discarded,” she said. “They are only cost effective as cheap labour.”

What she doesn’t want to do is paint the women as victims. “They are resilient, they are survivors.”

There are only 300 positions for women in Ontario’s swelling migrant labour force, which numbers 16,500 (or three-quarters of all the migrant farm workers in Canada).

The women mostly are assigned to pick and package cucumbers, tomatoes, and other soft fruits such as peaches because they’re considered more gentle handlers, said Encalada.

Scattered across southern Ontario, the women often must cope on their own in isolated communities where no one else speaks Spanish.

They are paid $8.50 an hour for an assumed 40-hour week, regardless of how many hours they put in.

Encalada is herself an immigrant from Latin America, arriving 27 years ago with her parents, who were escaping the political violence in Chile that claimed thousands of lives during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

“Canada had a door much more open to the world then,” she said. “Now, Latin Americans have to sell themselves as migrant workers to come here.

“The guest worker programs are not about a shortage of (domestic) workers. They are about creating a certain type of labour force, in agriculture and in construction, with limited rights that are easier to exploit.”


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