Migrant workers: He did the work Canadians wouldn’t

Posted by admin on Sep 5th, 2006

Toronto Star. He did the work Canadians wouldn’t. DAVID BRUSER

SANTA MARIA XOXOTECO, MEXICO—Fanny Romero steps carefully along the pocked dirt road, her 12-year-old daughter Sayuri apace, eyeing her mother’s belly. Sergio, impatient like most 8-year-olds, trots ahead, leading the way to the house. It’s late afternoon, and the surrounding Hidalgo mountains keep the two-storey concrete building in a cool spot of shade. For six years, Fanny’s husband Hermelindo Gutierrez, a migrant worker, had been building this home with money earned every February through July working in a St. Catharines greenhouse 3,000 kilometres north of this rural village.

But Gutierrez didn’t come home when he was supposed to last summer, and the money has dried up. The work has stopped. No flooring, furniture, wiring or railing for the stairwell. Just a shell with windows. Gutierrez is still up north — not working, alone, and very sick. His kidneys have failed, and he is undergoing dialysis treatments three times a week. And he has discovered a sad truth: The system that brought him to Canada to do work Canadians didn’t want, has abandoned him.

With money donated by a church in Canada, Fanny managed just one visit to her husband earlier this year. The kids go exploring, their voices echoing from empty rooms. Fanny, seven months pregnant, glances over her shoulder to make sure her kids are out of earshot.

“I just ask God that Hermelindo gets better,” she whispers. “He had so many dreams about finishing this house, and now with this illness, everything’s just come crashing down.”

In February 2005, for the sixth straight year, Gutierrez came to St. Catharines, one of 15,000 Mexican and Caribbean migrant farm labourers who arrive every year in Ontario, a largely unseen workforce that picks the vegetables, fruits and flowers that dress our dinner tables.

They come to Canada legally under the 40-year-old federal migrant worker program, chasing a dream of a better life for their families back home, toiling in fields and greenhouses six, sometimes seven days a week, earning a little more than minimum wage while propping up Ontario’s agricultural sector.

The workers pay income tax, contribute to the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance, are covered for injuries suffered on the job by Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and carry a health card. But in practice, they are not treated like Canadians.

When they fall sick or get hurt, when they’re most vulnerable, the system fails them. The federal government says responsibility for the workers’ welfare falls to the Mexican or Caribbean consulates. The foreign governments say their job is to ensure the smooth running of the program, balancing the needs of workers and employers.

That leaves the workers, who by law cannot unionize, without a dedicated advocate to help them cope with illness, injury, language barriers, homesickness and fear — a sobering note on a Labour Day weekend when Canada pays tribute to labourers who have contributed to the country’s prosperity.

“There’s nothing in the system that’s going to support them when things go wrong,” says Father Frank Murphy, a Catholic priest who has ministered to Mexican farm migrants for years.

The void is sometimes filled by labour activists, support groups, churches, and even graduate students. Janet McLaughlin, a University of Toronto anthropology student, has proved indispensable to Gutierrez in his struggles, and she says the country should be ashamed. “Canada washes its hands of its responsibilities to take care of workers once they become sick or injured,” she says.

For the next four hours, Gutierrez can’t move from his chair in the hospital on Ontario St. in St. Catharines. If the urge hits, he must go to the bathroom where he sits. The 34-year-old migrant farm worker wears a white and light-blue sleeveless T, showing broad shoulders and lean but muscular arms. He doesn’t look sick.

“Want a bullet to bite on?” a nurse quips, as she approaches with a long, menacing needle. Gutierrez’s face goes slack as he watches the needle go in, but he doesn’t wince. He has been doing this three times a week for about a year. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, from 6 to 10 p.m. “He’s very brave,” the nurse says. Two needles now stick out of a ropy, unnatural bulge in his arm — a “fistula” — created from surgically joining an artery to a vein to accommodate the flow of blood from his body to the blood-cleansing dialysis machine, then back into his body.

The machine reads his blood pressure at 173 over 113. Normal is below 120 over 80. High blood pressure is a common symptom of kidney failure.

“Why is it so high?” he asks in halting English. To Gutierrez’s visitors, an attendant explains in English: “He’s got no kidney (function) so he’s not getting rid of fluid. When he drinks, it stays in. It increases the blood pressure.”

Gutierrez does not fully understand how the dialysis machine works. “It is really very difficult for me,” he says through a translator. “There are some times they need to tell me something very special or very important I have to go and look for someone to make the translation for me. Sometimes they have to call a friend of mine to try to get the right information.”

Hanging from the ceiling, a television shows the Mexican soap opera Alborada, a little flavour of home. He does not know when he will see his wife and kids, or again sit in the lacquered pews of his town’s picturesque church, its interior covered with 16th-century frescoes.

Gutierrez is certain, however, that if he returns home — where he has no medical insurance, or even a car to get to the nearest hospital — he will die. That’s why he’s angry that the Mexican consulate wanted him to leave Canada. “Basically, we get sick and they just get rid of us,” Gutierrez says. In late March of 2005, as an ache settled in his lower legs, his ankles swelled and fatigue paled his skin, Gutierrez figured hard work had worn him down. But he did not complain.

Until then, he worked in the greenhouses at Pioneer Flower Farms for six years, travelling to and from Canada each year without problem — save calloused hands — and a growing reputation on the farm as one of the best workers.

“We knew he was not the same,” says Henk Sikking Sr., owner of Pioneer Farms. “I thought he didn’t have enough sleep. He had no energy left. We couldn’t figure it out. I think he felt embarrassed because he couldn’t do the work.”

In early April, a trip to a clinic for urine and blood work proved both a blessing and a curse for Gutierrez. RBC Insurance covers Mexican workers in the migrant worker program for, among other things, medical expenses incurred above and beyond what OHIP covers, such as prescription medicines.

Just days after his diagnosis of kidney failure, Sikking says, RBC called and insisted he send Gutierrez home within days.”I said, `Why?’ They won’t tell me. I said, `He’s not going home. He’s staying here,'” Sikking says. “They wanted to buy him out. I said, `No way. You can’t. He’s going to die.'” Gutierrez, too, says he was pressured, from both RBC and the Mexican consulate in Toronto, when both called the farm office after the diagnosis.

“(A consular official) called me. He told me that my illness was not covered. So I had to go back to Mexico. Just to make me go, they offered me $3,500,” he says. The consulate in Toronto told Gutierrez he would receive health care in Mexico if he returned. “I told them I want to first see something in writing, and then they never called me back,” Gutierrez says.

Sikking knew Gutierrez worked in between his Canadian contracts as a part-time farm labourer, or jornalero, with no medical insurance, little money and no car to drive to the nearest hospital in the city of Pachuca. So he put up $1,000 to retain a Toronto lawyer and Gutierrez submitted a refugee application.

“Those guys, we treat like a human, like we are. Like Canadians,” says Sikking, 61, whose seven acres of greenhouses produces flowers and bulb stock and supplies the Ottawa Tulip Festival. “I told him, `I won’t let you go. We’ll find something.'”

RBC Insurance said it would not comment on Gutierrez’s case.

In a boardroom on the 44th floor of the Commerce Court West building at Bay and King Sts., Mexican consul general Carlos Pujalte says the anger felt at Pioneer Flower Farms is simply the result of a misunderstanding.

He denies his office tried to push Gutierrez out of Canada or doing anything without his health foremost in mind. “He (Gutierrez) misunderstood. My feeling is that the guy (from my office) who called him was trying to explain to him that there is a limit on insurance over here and that there will be some that would be given to him by RBC,” Pujalte says.

The workers’ OHIP card covers them for the duration of their contract, and if an illness takes them out of the fields, RBC will pay a portion of the worker’s lost income for no longer than eight weeks. When a worker is unable to work but deemed medically fit for travel, the worker returns home or forfeits the benefits offered by the RBC policy. So if a worker like Gutierrez suffers an illness that could require extended care, Pujalte says it’s the consulate’s job to look out for the worker’s long-term care.

Plus, Pujalte adds, Mexico can provide whatever treatment a worker could find here in Canada. “They can choose to stay, but what we try is to get the better way to have them treated,” he says. “In Mexico we have a health system like in Canada.” As for the fact that Gutierrez lives more than an hour’s drive from Pachuca, the nearest city that offers more than a rudimentary rural clinic, Pujalte says, “That’s a problem.”

But it’s not free. The patient shares the cost, the portion determined by a social worker’s evaluation of his or her earnings and other factors. “Here’s another problem: People from (rural areas) come to the city to get the attention that they need. Sometimes they don’t have money to come to Mexico City,” says Esteves. Worse yet, since patients must pay some portion of the care, they often cannot afford the entire round of treatment. “You won’t have the money to buy the medicine that was prescribed. You won’t have the money to pay for chemotherapy, which is very costly, and you won’t have the money you need to perform dialysis.”

That is why another migrant worker Alberto Garcia, despite the consulate’s desire to ship him home, decided to stay in a London, Ont.,hospital, where he has been battling a pernicious tumour near his intestines.

The 36-year-old, who travelled from the village of Cuijingo in Mexico State to work on a flower farm in Simcoe, fell ill in mid-May. Doctors initially thought the cancer was terminal — four to six weeks to live, according to the consulate. That was three months ago.

Consular officials say they wanted him home, where he could continue to receive care and die with his family.

Sitting on his hospital bed, with bare scalp and sallow skin, Garcia says, “I think I wouldn’t be telling this story in Mexico. There’s advances here.”

The migrant worker program started in 1966, drawing labour from Caribbean nations, and in 1974 included Mexico, which provides 8,000 to 10,000 farmhands to Canada each year, the majority — 80 per cent — in Ontario.

For Mexico alone, that means $68 million (U.S.) annually in remittances, money that by one estimate benefits about 50,000 people in rural areas like Gutierrez’s home state of Hidalgo. Many workers say they can make up to 10 times the money earned doing a similar job back home.

“There are a lot of small farms that are able to keep on going here in Canada thanks to the Mexican labour,” says consul general Carlos Pujalte. “Because most of the farms wouldn’t be able to compete against the big producers.” Gutierrez’s long-time boss Henk Sikking puts it more bluntly. “If I were to hire 30 Canadians, some guys would do the job for the month, some for a week, some for two days, some for one day. Those guys, they won’t stick to the job.”

Gutierrez grew up the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters, and to keep things simple, because he was the smallest and carried the first name as his father, everyone called him “chiquito.” “We lived in a very impoverished condition,” he says. “We didn’t have but a room to live in. Our parents were only able to feed us with tortillas, beans, soup.” His
annual journey to Canada was not only an escape from poverty, but a safer and cheaper alternative to the perilous and illegal migration so many of his countrymen still make to the U.S. for work. Gutierrez tried that route in 1998, paying $2,000 to be smuggled across the Rio Bravo and into the U.S. He hopped a train and eventually made it to Florida, where he picked oranges and worked as a carpenter for 10 months.

Now, staring at his Reebok shoebox filled with 30 different pill bottles, this young man’s body has betrayed him — either he will be on dialysis for life, an organ donor recipient, or dead. “It’s crazy,” he says. “All we’ve gone through and then I come here and get sick.” He used to make the 15-minute trip to and from the hospital in St. Catharines on his bike. This past winter, some of his fellow migrant workers at Pioneer Flower Farms started a collection. “Some people give me $10, $50, $100. In total it was $1,600.”

With that, Gutierrez bought a 1992 black Nissan Maxima. “When you’re in this situation, they’re the only family you have. They’re the ones who help you with everything.” After the diagnosis, as his future grew more uncertain and his family waited at home, Gutierrez started writing in a notebook. “I was alone. I didn’t have anything. I thought I was going to die. I started writing all the things that I had wanted to do. All the dreams. “I had wanted a house and now the house is unfinished. I had wanted a car, but then I got sick. They’re all left to be forgotten. The only thing God has given me is that baby.”

Fanny is due next week. She and the two kids live at her father’s place, a couple of blocks away from Gutierrez’s unfinished house.

Foreign help wanted. Must have agricultural experience, be married or have a common-law partner, preferably with children, live in a rural area and be between 22 and 45 years old. Must have a minimum third grade education but no more than a ninth grade education.

To anthropology professor Avis Mysyk, this list of requirements, as posted on the Mexican consulate’s website, is a prescription for loneliness, confusion and vulnerability.

Add the physical stress of working all day, nearly every day, and visits to the hospital are not uncommon, says a program official in Leamington, where there are three consular workers to help 4,000 migrants.

“My heavens, these men really could use certified interpreters,” Mysyk says. “Have you ever been to another country, gotten ill and don’t speak the language?” The language barrier extends to most Canadian government offices, where service is only available in French or English, and business hours typically start and end while workers are usually in the fields.

The migrant worker program does not provide translators, Spanish-speaking doctors or lawyers, or English-language training. “The government, they’re taking away from these guys and they’re not giving it back. It’s not really fair to them,” says OPP Const. Hector Jibbison, who has first-hand knowledge of the migrant worker’s plight. The native of Jamaica, who spent years toiling in the tobacco fields of Norfolk County, met and married a Canadian woman about a decade ago.

“With all the red tape, with all the documentation involved, (the worker) has to have somebody there guiding him through the process,” adds Jibbison, whose job now includes teaching bicycle safety to the Jamaican migrant community. “That’s a huge issue with the guys.”

Since workers cannot unionize and farmers can always refuse to renew a migrant’s contract for the following year, many workers say they have little or no opportunity for redress. They fear that speaking out will result in a plane ticket home to a family that desperately needs the money.

“If you want to go to Canada, if you can take shit, well, stay,” Roland Mitchell, who worked on a tobacco farm near Tillsonburg until throwing out his back on the job last year, says in a telephone interview from his home in Trinidad. “There should be a union. Some people should come and try to see if they can get some unity.”

At Human Resources and Social Development Canada, the federal agency charged with managing the program, spokesperson Jorge Aceytuno says workers benefit from the help of consular officials, who can answer workers’ questions, and Spanish-language pamphlets that inform workers of labour standards and provide phone numbers to call for information.

“Slowly we do try to address as many as the program-wide problems that we may find,” he says. “We try to find solutions that can work. We know it’s not perfect yet. But we have put in place changes even when advocacy groups raise problems, and we’ll continue to.” Mexican consular officials say they don’t have enough staff to reach all the workers in need. Meanwhile, they suggest a couple of possible solutions:

Hospitals located near clusters of migrants could hire Mexican doctors or nurses, or at least provide a pamphlet depicting the human body with Spanish and English words the patient and doctor can refer to. (Leamington District Memorial Hospital acknowledges the problem and says it hopes to offer Spanish/English pamphlets within a few weeks.)

And consul general Pujalte notes that when program administrators and farm owners meet once a year to discuss the state of the program, absent from the table is anyone representing the workers’ interests.

Perhaps a Mexican-based union with representatives stationed in Canada, he says, could fill that void.

Gutierrez, meanwhile, continues his own fight with help from people like graduate student Janet McLaughlin. He awaits a hearing before the refugee board, where he will argue that he must stay in Canada or risk dying under the care of Mexico’s health system. Since making the refugee claim, the federal government has paid his rent for an apartment in St. Catharines and covered his medical expenses, as would be the case for any refugee claimant, his lawyer says.

McLaughlin says Gutierrez’s nine brothers and sisters are all willing to donate a kidney, but it is not yet clear whether the federal government will pay to test their donor compatibility before his refugee claim is decided. Fanny Romero gently eases into a straight-back chair, her cheeks flush from padding through her parents’ cramped house to the dining room. A postcard-size image of Jesus watches over the table and the baby in her belly. She expected this to be an emotional visit with the visitor bringing news and gifts from her husband Hermelindo. Still, Fanny’s breath catches as she slides the picture out of the envelope.

Gutierrez is smiling back at her from the 4-by-6 print. He’s crouching over a small carry-on suitcase of gifts, topping it off with a blue baby’s jumper. “Oh, I’m going to cry,” she says, jamming balled fists into her eyes. “I’m sorry.” But son Sergio goes at the pile of gifts wide-eyed, ripping the package holding a mini remote control car. His sister Sayuri unzips a black leather case and pulls out a used Sony laptop bought at a flea market. Her father’s gift for graduating elementary school. Stunned, the lanky girl says, “I have no idea how to use it.”

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