Since 1966, workers of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) have left their families to toil on farms and greenhouses up to twelve hours per day, six to seven days a week, in order to supply the fruits and vegetables Canadians enjoy. As many as 110,000 low-skilled migrant workers come to Canada annually, 7,000 of which are sent to Leamington, ON, where Min Sook Lee’s intimate and eye-opening documentary, Migrant Dreams, takes place.
Over the course of three years Lee follows the stories of migrant workers and their struggle against their employers. Lee has formed deep relationships with migrant workers having documented the journey of SAWP workers from Mexico to Leamington in her film El Contrato (2003). 10 years later, the scenes in Migrant Dreams are strikingly similar. Workers face deplorable housing and work conditions, little access to social services and welfare, lack of proper medical attention, and the unbearable separation from their loved ones back home. This time, Lee focuses on the day-to-day struggle of a group of Indonesian migrant agricultural workers as they pack vegetables inside greenhouse operations in Southern Ontario.
The film exposes the vulnerability of workers that is structured by Canada’s lax regulations concerning the TFWP program. Exploitation under TFWP begins with recruitment in Indonesia. Workers are swayed by promises of better opportunities and income through migrant work. Yet, despite recruiters’ guarantees that they don’t have to pay anything to get into Canada and will earn more, they illegally charge upwards of $7,000 in agency fees and immediately trap their workers in debt bondage.
The program ties workers to one employer and without permanent resident status in Canada it is nearly impossible for these workers to find alternate employment if they’re unsatisfied. This makes it easier for employers to take advantage of workers who have little choice but to accept unfair treatment. In addition, workers are forced to pay income tax and contribute to Employment Insurance, and the Canada Pension Plan even though they can never access those benefits.
There are virtually no workers’ centres that they can access for help when their employers violate existing laws, rendering them isolated and afraid. Employer intimidation haunts workers through all aspects of their personal lives. The film follows two workers as they move out of a decrepit housing unit where they paid rent to their employer, but even after they get out they are forced to pay a $30/week “rent fee”.
One worker’s hours are cut back and her employer demands her passport. In another case, when workers employed by two different greenhouses fall in love and decide to get married they fear that their recruiters will show up on their wedding day. Later on, they find out that their recruiters told their family in Indonesia about their ‘illicit’ marriage without their consent.
All workers in the film are coerced by threats of deportation from greenhouse owners and they are subject to whatever conditions their employers demand. As one employer told a worker in the film, “We own you”.
The surveillance and coercion of migrant workers is unprecedented, and yet, thousands of workers go through this every year. Indeed, the few stories of super-exploitation featured in Lee’s film are not unique.
So how can migrant workers resist? There are many reasons why workers stay in these jobs. Often when workers resist they’ll be instantly fired and deported home where work opportunities are bleak. As one worker in the film remarked, “If they fire you, you have nowhere to go”. But Migrant Dreams not only exposes these injustices—it’s a call to action. Nothing is going to change as long as migrant workers are left to fend for themselves.
The film features long-time allies, Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), a grassroots organization that has created a platform for migrant workers to voice their struggles. On October 2-3, 2016, J4MW’s Harvesting Freedom campaign will host a march from Leamington to Ottawa in order to demand access to permanent resident status for all migrant workers that would give them far more protection.
Those who are aware of Sheldon McKenzie, a migrant worker from Jamaica who suffered a fatal head injury at an Ontario farm, know that these workers are literally fighting for their lives. The time is ripe for broader mobilization by labour and community to put pressure on the Canadian federal government to enforce migrant workers’ rights. We must fundamentally expose Canada’s national project, founded on stolen Indigenous land, which continues to ceaselessly exploit racialized peoples for difficult and demanding labour.
Migrant Dreams is a must-see for allies of migrant workers and all workers alike. It allows all of us to better understand their ambition, passion, love, hope, their struggle to be treated as human beings with rights and not as disposable commodities that global capitalism forces them to be.