Modern Day Slavery

Noé Arteaga’s employers fired and deported him to Guatemala after he stood up for his rights as a migrant worker in Canada.

Temporary foreign workers come to Canada on a visa with their employer’s name on it. They cannot change employers if a problem arises. Workers are also often dependent on their employers for transportation, housing and food.

Arteaga and his 70 colleagues worked on a tomato farm in Quebec.

One day in the summer of 2008 a worker became sick. This worker was mentally and physically ill and needed urgent medical attention. He was too sick to work and his supervisors kept the man on a bus while everyone else was working in the fields. Arteaga organized a mini-strike. He told his employers that he and a group of men would not work until they took the man to a hospital.

The man went to the hospital but Arteaga’s employers were angry, he said.

A few weeks later Arteaga refused to work on a day that he was supposed to have off.

The next day the consulate called and told him that he lost his job and had to go home. Within 12 hours he was at the airport.

“I presented a little problem and they cut me just like that. This is why migrant workers are so beneficial to farmers,” Arteaga said. “Even if they get paid the same as Canadians they are too scared to say anything and if they do, they’re gone.”

He did not get severance pay and had to pay for his flight home.

Arteaga returned to Canada under refugee status. He was the first Guatemalan migrant worker to file a claim against his employers in Quebec.

More than 300,000 temporary foreign workers were in Canada in 2011. This number tripled since the year 2000, according to a report by the Metcalf Foundation called “Made in Canada.” Temporary workers have come to Canada to work in an array of industries. Fourteen percent of all workers came from the Philippines. The majority were women working as nannies. The men, chiefly those from Central America, most often worked in agriculture, according to data from the 2006 census.

Few laws assist these workers and they are often unaware of their rights, said Stan Raper, the national coordinator for Agricultural Workers Alliance.

“I’ve seen people living in garages with pesticides and chemicals. I’ve seen people sleeping on cardboard on the floor. I’ve seen housing with air and water quality issues. I’ve seen people living in barns. It’s pretty disturbing,” Raper said.

Each year, officials must inspect the housing before the provincial government approves, according to the Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Service.

Farmers in the Niagara region are increasingly cutting costs, said Jane Andres. She lives in the Niagara region and organizes community events for migrant worker. Canadian farmers in the region are less able to compete with fruit from the United States and Africa where labour is cheaper, she said.

“When workers are getting abused you really have to look at the lives of the farmers,” she said.

“It’s hard here but I really can’t complain,” said Maximo Paul Lira, a Mexican worker who has returned to Canada for 10 seasons to work on farms in Southern Ontario. Each season has lasted around eight months. Every winter he has returned to Mexico.

He has continued to come back because in Mexico he could not make the same amount of money and support his family.

“If I could get residence I would, just so I would be free,” he said. “Here the bosses are super demanding and I just have to tolerate it. I can’t quit or say anything.”

Arteaga did speak up and his employers deported him. Now he’s an outspoken critic of the program.

“It’s modern day slavery,” he said. “You are tied to your employer and if you don’t like what is happening there are thousands of people ready to take your job. They dispose of the workers, just like they did to me.”

Arteaga said the economic conditions in Guatemala have been bad. His younger brother still wanted to come to Canada as a temporary worker.

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