Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Migrant workers 'invisible'

WCB doesn't track injuries by nationality

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Saying goodbye to two young children and leaving to work in a foreign country for six months isn't something most Canadians have to do.

Explaining to your spouse and children that as much as you'd love for them to join you, strict immigration laws ensure they probably never will, is also something most Canadians avoid.

This is the reality migrant farm worker 44-year-old Luis Galvain faces each year.

"It was difficult at the beginning," said Galvain, who is from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. "For me, it's a need. There's no choice."

Galvain was one of the 24,000 migrant farm workers who came to Canada in 2011. He initially heard about the opportunity to work in Canada through his brother. He travels to Portage la Prairie every year as a temporary foreign worker under the seasonal agricultural worker program, which matches workers from Mexico and Caribbean countries with Canadian farmers who need temporary help during planting and harvesting when qualified Canadians or permanent residents are not available.

Peak of the Market president Larry McIntosh said migrant farm workers play a vital role in ensuring the availability of Manitoba-grown produce and do jobs Canadian workers won't.

"Many summer crops like cucumbers, cabbage, asparagus and broccoli wouldn't be grown in Manitoba if it weren't for the migrant farm workers," McIntosh said.

Gustavo Mejicanos from the Agricultural Workers Alliance in Manitoba said migrant farm workers in the province are all men.

Mejicanos also said the men are depend on the goodwill of their employers to return each year and their job in Manitoba is not guaranteed.

Unlike many migrant farm workers who pick vegetables during harvest, Galvain also works at a tree nursery just outside Portage la Prairie. Galvain's employer, Jeffries Nurseries Ltd., provides free accommodation and access to a vehicle, something not all employers offer.

While Galvain said his experience has been positive, this is not the case for every migrant farm worker.

Jody Read, a member of the Migrant Worker Solidarity Network, said some workers are paid for the amount of vegetables they pick, instead of an hourly wage.

Last summer, she said one migrant farm worker had his hours cut and was suspended for two days after he told the farm's management workers could not meet the quota of vegetables and were making less than minimum wage.

"Migrant farm workers are invisible and get treated as such," Read said.

The Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba does not track workplace injuries reported within the meat-packing and vegetable-packing industries by nationality, according to a response to a freedom-of-information request.

In Manitoba, temporary foreign workers can apply for permanent residency after working in the province for six months. The seasonal agricultural worker program is an exception to this rule, and workers must apply as a regular immigrant through the provincial nominee program. That leaves many workers ineligible to apply since they often don't meet language, education and income requirements.

Now that Galvain is in the cycle of coming to Canada each year, it's become difficult to find work that pays well while he's in Mexico. He relies on the money he earns from his job at the tree nursery to support his family. Back in Mexico, Galvain grows strawberries on his father's farm.

Galvain's 12-hour-long days in Manitoba as a migrant farm worker allowed him to buy a home and truck for his family back home.

"I can spend the whole day working in Mexico and get the same from two hours of working in Canada," he said.

city.desk@freepress.mb.ca

With the help of Free Press staff, students in Red River College's Creative Communications program learn how to mine freedom of information legislation for stories. At the start of the school year, students submit access to information requests. Over the next several weeks, the Free Press will publish some of the stories students wrote based on their requests. Visit wfp.to/opensecrets to see them all.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 A13

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