Niagara’s billion-dollar wine and grape industry relies heavily on the skill and sacrifices of migrant workers, who are mainly from the Caribbean and Mexico. Their economic and social impact is far reaching, yet they remain invisible and excluded from today’s celebration.
Since 1966, thousands of migrant workers have been employed in Ontario’s fields and greenhouses. Migrant workers are tied to an employer, are denied labour and social mobility and must return home when their contracts end. Even though they pay into Canada’s social safety net, migrant workers are denied many of the basic entitlements Canadians enjoy. If we peel back the veil, we can see the wealth of local wineries and vineyards occurs on the backs of unfree workers.
When migrant workers are injured or sick they are often sent home, thus downloading healthcare costs to the families of the sick and injured. Many of these workers are no longer able to work after sustaining injuries and sicknesses while working in Canada. Between 2001-11, 787 migrant farm workers were returned to their countries of origin due to illness or injury — 98% of these repatriations were not based on workers’ requests.
Dozens of migrants have died as a result of working conditions on farms. These include the deaths of migrant farm workers such as Ned Livingston Peart, Sheldon McKenzie, Omar Graham and Ezequiel Cervantes-Nava, all of whom died from preventable workplace accidents. To date, there has never been a coroner’s inquest into the death of a migrant farm worker anywhere in Canada.
Farm workers are not entitled to overtime pay, holiday pay or many other protections under Ontario’s Employment Standard Act. Few protections exist for farm workers from pesticides, chemicals or dangerous working conditions.
Both occupational health & safety and employment standards are modernized to protect the rights of low-wage migrant workers.
Random spot-checks at farm sites and employer-provided accommodations.
Access to provincial health insurance on arrival, stopping the practice of medical repatriations whereby sick and injured migrants are sent home, and ending discriminatory workers compensation practises that deny migrant workers equal access to benefits.
Although the Niagara wine industry is becoming increasingly renowned for the quality of its grapes, at present the industry simply could not exist without migrant workers. Yet migrant workers are seldom celebrated amidst the bucolic imagery associated with wine marketing and agri-tourism.
We decided that a celebration of local wine ought to celebrate the contributions of migrant workers in our communities, and that such a celebration also ought to demand the conditions for health equity, justice and dignity among all those who produce wine grapes. So, we created a presence for migrant workers by joining the Niagara Wine Festival Grande Parade, with its 2016 theme of “Homegrown Niagara.”
Marching in the parade, we shared messages from migrant workers about their experiences, and we provided parade attendees with information about the Harvesting Freedom campaign for status on arrival. Coverage of our parade participation made it into the St. Catharines Standard and the Thorold Edition. Thanks so much to the dream team from the Niagara region who helped make our multi-part visit happen last week (including those who contributed photographs below from the event) especially Heryka Miranda, Dylan Powell, Rose Davies, Simon Black and many more.
Heryka Miranda and Juan Luis Mendoza de La Cruz performing as part of “The Sunflower Man” in April 2016. Photo: AMW
A couple of folks from St. Catharines have asked if there was a typo in ourcaravan schedule. Nope! We’re heading out there twice this coming week: once on 21st Sept, and again on the 24th. Please see below for details.
Thanks so much to community members Heryka Miranda and Rose Davies for helping to host us in St. Catharines. Like so many of the amazing volunteers who have helped make the Harvesting Freedom Caravan possible, Heryka has been engaged in inspiring collaborations with workers. You can learn about her dance therapy-based research project with farm workers in the Niagara region here.
Wednesday Sept 21 The Harvesting Freedom Caravan will be in Brock University watching documentary films Migrant Dreams and hosting a community discussion from 5-8 pm. We will be in room THISTLE (TH) 258. Brock is at 1812 Sir Isaac Brock Way Street, St Catharines. This film is screened as part of Cinema Politica, in partnership with Brock’s sociology professor Jane Helleiner, who teaches a third year Global Migration class and local community activists. RSVP on the Facebook event
Saturday Sept 24 Demonstration at the Niagara Wine Festival Grande Parade, 9am-11am. Please join us at Montebello Park at the corner of Lake and Queen St for a demonstration to demand justice, and status, for migrant farm workers. We will be giving out information to the public, and displaying messages from local migrant workers about their experiences. You are welcome to hold a sign in their place, or bring your own sign. We will have limited materials on site for people to create their own signs. Get in touch if you want to take part (harvestingfreedomcampaign@gmail). Facebookevent info here.