Migrant farmhand speaks out about abuse on Quebec tomato farm

Posted by admin on Aug 20th, 2009

August 20th, 2009, Stefan Christoff, The Hour

A Guatemalan now living in Montreal is speaking out about the abuse he experienced as a migrant farmhand picking tomatoes near Shawinigan. Noé Arteaga was working for high-tech Savoura farm when a fellow worker, Osvaldo Otoniel, fell ill. “After spraying the insecticides one night, Osvaldo [Otoniel]started becoming very sick, having serious symptoms from the chemicals: exhaustion, extreme nausea and very strange behaviour,” recounts Arteaga. Despite repeated requests to both the in-house union, the Syndicat des employé(e)s de Savoura, and the Guatemalan consulate in Montreal, Arteaga says his employers refused to take Otoniel to hospital for a week.

Desperate to get help for Otoniel, the migrant workers banded together and organized an early morning work stoppage at the farm – the only way they felt they could get the attention of their employer, explains Arteaga. “They need our hands for their farm.”

Otoniel was eventually brought to hospital for treatment, but one week later both Arteaga and Otoniel were fired by Savoura farm and forced to pay their way back to Guatemala.

Now in Montreal, Arteaga has filed a complaint with the Commission des relations du travail against the Syndicat des employé(e)s de Savoura, who he argues did not defend him.

“We are very proud to have workers from Guatemala working at Savoura, all the workers are very, very happy,” says Marie Gosselin, president general director for Savoura. She says Arteaga “is the first worker that has given us problems.”

Migrant workers provide Quebec farms with cheap labour and have saved the farm industry from going bust – their numbers have increased annually from 860 in 1995 to 6,627 in 2008. On paper they receive the same rights as Quebecers, including free health care, but are susceptible to exploitation, says Arteaga, who says his employer was both his landlord and deportation agent.

“Before people buy Quebec tomatoes, they should know about our working conditions and think about what they are buying.”

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