Agricultural workers. 'This is about respect, dignity and quality of life'
[Original article is from canada.com]
Monday, June 23, 2008
Same as in years past, hundreds of Latin American migrants again this summer are working the rich, dark soil of our city's market-garden belt just south of Montreal Island.
Look carefully across the flat fields of produce that line Highways 209, 221 and other area roads. Far in the distance, you may see them, tiny figures silhouetted against the horizon.
But this summer, things are different.
Sure, those fertile fields are blessed as ever with the black earth on which Montrealers depend for locally grown lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, onions and other fresh, crisp vegetables. And the daily routine of sun, rain and toil for these migrants continues to feature an abundance of sweat and soil.
But now, these labourers have an extra place to turn should they run into any kind of problems - whether over working conditions, the treatment they receive from the big-farm operators that import and house them for five or six months of the year, or anything else.
Beginning at 3 p.m. yesterday, these workers now have a place of their own in St. Rémi de Napierville, about 30 kilometres south of Montreal.
It's a modest office that will also provide French-language lessons and help with income-tax forms.
The first such rural office for migrants established anywhere in Quebec, it replaces an old recreational vehicle that had been periodically driven into the area in recent summers.
Little wonder, then, that for these labourers yesterday was a time for quiet celebration.
Dozens of them, largely but not exclusively from Mexico and Guatemala, packed the sweltering, second-floor walkup next to the Canada Post office in downtown, 5,700-population St. Rémi to inaugurate the Patricia Pérez Migrant Worker Support Centre.
Pérez wasn't there, at least not in the flesh.
The life of the Montreal migrant-rights activist was cut short by cancer last fall, at age 52.
A plaque now hangs in the centre, both to embody her spirit and oversee the expansion of her work.
A modest photo of Pérez is accompanied by the Spanish phrase "Si, se puede!"
In case anyone hasn't been following the campaign of U.S. presidential aspirant Barack Obama, it's a soul-stirring slogan that means, in English, "Yes, we can!"
Several times during the dedication, Mario Delisle, his soul one of many in the room clearly stirred by the occasion, needed an extra few seconds to damp his tears.
"Patricia is the person," Delisle declared, "who taught me the meaning of commitment."
Delisle is a vice-president of Local 501 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which is bankrolling the summer office.
The national union already operates seven similar offices in four other provinces, most notably in the market-garden belt of Southern Ontario .
Quebec "is 'home' to the second-largest temporary migrant population in Canada," Giselle Valarezo said in her detailed, 129-page master's thesis for Queen's University on the migrants of St. Rémi, completed last September.
The situation of migrants in this province "has not received the attention it warrants,"
Valarezo added: "Temporary migrant workers face a double disadvantage because they are employed in sectors that are defined as precarious and lack
access to citizenship rights."
The food-workers' union continues its fight to acquire collective-bargaining rights for these farmworkers, said Pierre Gingras, president of 11,000-member Local 501.
"This is the same as our battle with Wal-Mart," he said.
"This is about respect, dignity and quality of life.
Binicio Leal Inzunza, 39, for instance.
He first met Pérez four summers ago, during a session where she explained his rights, during his initial sojourn in Canada.
He's been back every year since, between April and October.
"She was not allowed to hold her workshops (explaining migrant rights) at the farms," Leal Inzunza recalled, so instead Pérez chose "the sidewalk in front of Provigo and IGA."
He succinctly explained the economics behind his annual six-month stint at a big lettuce farm in the area, where he said he considers himself well-treated.
At home in Sinaloa, Mexico., he makes $7 a day when he harvests tomatoes or pumpkins. "Here, I make $8.52 an hour."
He is literally exiled into rural Quebec and away from his family half of every year.
How does that make him feel?
"Proud that I am taking care of my family," he responded, explaining that the $8,000 he can clear in an average harvest year goes a long, long way at home.
Although Leal Inzunza left middle school at age 16, he said, that won't be the fate of the five children he shares with his wife, Virginia Rivas Aguirre - Josué, 20, Vianey, 17, Alejandro, 13, Jazmín, 9, and Omar, 6.
They'll get a higher education, he vowed. "Their lives will be different."
"Patricia lives in my heart.
"She was part of our family."
On the Web: Report on the Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, 2006-2007, at http://ufcw.ca/migrantreport