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A day in the life of migrant workers

Migrant workers are a large and growing part of the Canadian workforce—and face particular hurdles from employers and governments.

May 1, 2023

4-minute read

Low-waged migrants come to Canada on employer-tied permits to plant, harvest, produce and package agri-food. The vast majority of these products—from fruits, to flowers, to lobsters, to wines—are for export. Many migrants face employer harassment and abuse; they live in inhumane housing without even basic hygiene or clean drinking water; they are forced to work with dangerous pesticides without training or PPE; they face injuries, family separation and wage theft.

But despite these challenges, migrants are organizing and speaking up.

Since 2017, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) has been building a membership-based organization of migrants focusing on different sectors: agriculture, fisheries, migrant care workers, undocumented workers in health care and current and former international students. Today, MWAC has 113 advanced members in agriculture and fisheries who lead our work and 2,376 migrants who are organizing with us in the agriculture and fisheries sector.

Here are three of them in their own words.

Gabriel is from Mexico and works with broccoli

Describe your worst day

I have come for 19 seasons. One of my worst days in Canada, that year I was assigned to a farm that workers do not want to return to because of bad treatment.

It was a long rainy day in September. We worked from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare food for the day. We had to take turns cooking, then travelled 30 minutes to the farm.

The furrows were full of water. It was hard to work. I cut my finger with the knife cutting broccoli. The bleeding did not stop. The supervisor put electric tape on my hand and asked me to keep working. It came off. I asked him to take me to the house or the hospital but he ignored me.

At noon, a thunderstorm started. We asked the supervisor to let us stop working. It was dangerous to keep working with knives outdoors. We saw lightning strike. But he said he needed to finish the order. Supervisors compete with each other: whoever gets the most production gets a bonus; that’s why they make us work quickly.

That afternoon I slipped and hurt my hip and couldn't continue crouching to cut. The supervisor said: “I am sorry paisano, we come to work.” I had to endure the pain and keep working until 10 p.m.

Why did you join MWAC? Why do you fight?

I joined MWAC to unite with migrant workers, to know our rights. Many times, employers do not want us to know because it is inconvenient for them.

Migrants like me are far from our families, fighting for permanent residency. We do not want to depend on one employer that can send us back or does not request us because we grow older or we are not useful anymore. With permanent residency, we would have equal rights.

What is your message to Canadians?

To Canadians: I ask you to respect our rights. We are not machines or slaves, we are humans. We listen, feel, and your insults hurt us. Treat us as people. Sometimes employers don't care how we feel, they just care about their harvest and their products but forget who harvests and produces them. We contribute and do a lot for this country. We know we come to work, but we deserve dignified treatment.

Jess is from Jamaica, worked with strawberries and is now undocumented

Describe your worst day

Most of my days are the worst. Being on the farm work program, no health care, losing my housing and status—those are my worst days.

On the program, when I got injured and requested to go to the doctor, the supervisor shut me down and it made me think twice, like, what am I doing? Why am I here? This is not the place for me. And I remembered why I am here: to try and make life better for me and my kids, my family. So that is the reason why I stayed here. It’s painful to be away from my children. Sometimes when I think about it, I cry. I want to enjoy life with my family.

Why did you join MWAC? Why do you fight?

I’m fighting because I’m homeless, I need health care and a job. It’s not so many barriers, it’s just one barrier: permanent status. That’s it. That’s the one barrier. That’s what’s stopping us from living like a regular person in Canada.

I keep fighting because people are there with me. I was introduced to MWAC by a co-worker and by talking with organizers on the phone and telling them my situation. They offered to stand up and fight with me. So that’s why I joined, to fight for me and others, because it’s not just about me. Other people are in the same situation. We’re fighting for millions of people. We’re building a new Canada with love, dignity, and open arms.

What is your message to Canadians?

Treat us right, with respect and dignity. Give us the chance to be a human being. We need more people to stand with us. Join the fight with us, fight for our rights! Come on board, fight for status for all. We need your support, 100%.

Stacy is from Jamaica, works in fisheries in New Brunswick

Describe your worst day

When you are a migrant worker and a single mom, you realize that the Canadian dream is more like a Canadian nightmare. The discrimination, the exploitation, and the inflation makes our lives harder. Some of the challenges that I had to face is an unstable job, since you are attached to a single employer. It is impossible to be free and the government does not allow you to get a different job, so you have to be with the employer that gave you the Labour Market Impact Assessment even though you are not getting enough hours. Having access to only minimum wage jobs makes our life miserable. Sometimes you have to choose between feeding your family back home and putting gas in your car here. This is the migrant worker’s reality. We have to support two economies—the Canadian economy as well as our country’s economy.

Why did you join MWAC? Why do you fight?
I want to tell all workers to join MWAC and tell them to come and join Status For All so we can work together, so we can win. We all need a better life, better education and we also need permanent residency for us and our families. Permanent residency would make a big difference for me because I would get a better paying job and I would be able to reunite with my family.

What is your message to Canadians?

Everyone needs permanent residency. There are a lot of migrant workers here facing the same situation, who need to become permanent residents in Canada to access all the services that are being denied, so it is important for all of us to fight until we win.

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