author: Denny Manchee / photography: Ron Baxter Smith
Migrant farm workers are the invisible threads in our community fabric. Without them to prune, weed, spray and harvest, our apples, grapes and garden produce would shrivel, along with a big part of the local economy.
The vines are still bare, their roots hilled with soil when vineyard manager, Luciano Della Civita walks me through Casa-Dea Estates Winery near Hillier. Lou has the large bearing of another Luciano, and he chokes back tears just like Pavarotti in Pagliacci. But he is not weeping over his wife's betrayal, he is broken-hearted at losing many of Casa-Dea's Thai workers this August; they must go home under the federal government's four-year maximum work permit for Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs), introduced on April 1, 2011. They're not allowed to return for four years.
Phaithoon Chommee, 49, is one of those workers. Slim and shy, this gentle man has been tending the vines at Casa-Dea since 2011 and his hard work has helped put his son through medical school in Thailand. (Phaithoon is the second worker I have spoken to who has a child who's become a doctor.) "I'm sure this fellow doesn't really want to be here, but he's here be- cause of necessity," says Lou, his Montreal-Italian roots showing in the musicality of his voice. "He has a wife and son who he would like to see every morning, and I can relate to that. But he needs to be here, and the government is saying, no, he has to go back. Very unjust – for him, for me."
The more I delve into migrant farm labour in our region, the dominant theme seems to be relationships: between governments of different countries, between bureaucratic processes and simple manual tasks, employers and workers, workers and their families back home, foreign labour and the health of our own economy, local communities and seasonal migrants, hard work and advancement, Lake Ontario and the land near it.
It's so much more nuanced than scenes from The Cider House Rules, from our assumptions of exploitation when we see people in the distance working among the espaliered trees and vines. People come here because they want to work and improve life for their families back home. Yes, they work hard for minimum wage, but it's still more than they can hope for in their own countries.
THE PROCESS, THE DEAL
There are two programs that govern work permits for agricultural workers in Canada. The four-year cap Lou is talking about applies to agricultural workers who come from countries outside the Caribbean and Mexico. The latter are covered by a separate agreement called the Commonwealth Caribbean/Mexico Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) that offers eight-month work permits and allows people to come back year after year. According to the Migrant Farm Workers Project of the New Canadians Centre (NCC) in Peterborough, about 17,000 Caribbean and Mexican workers come to Ontario each year through SAWP. Caitlin Barratt, who managed the project last year and is now the administrator and settlement counsellor at the Cobourg office, says it's tough to put a hard number around the workers who come to Northumberland. "Based on those who attend our events and through word of mouth (through the workers), we estimate about 220-240 workers, and 45-50 are Spanish speaking."
Francisco Grana Rocha and Felix Molina Urieta are two of them. They have been working from May to November at Burnham's Family Farm on Highway 2 west of Cobourg for many years. Francisco, 40, comes from Guanajuato north of Mexico City and has five kids back home, ranging from seven to 19 years old. Felix, 58, is from Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico and has four kids from 25 to 31.
On the evening I meet them they have just finished weeding asparagus all day and are beginning to prepare their supper in the cosy bungalow provided by the Burnhams. Employers must cover half the airfare from the home country, as well as housing – including beds, bedding, abundant water, cooking and laundry facilities, heat, bathrooms – workplace safety insurance and private health insurance until OHIP kicks in. It's a deal that, in the best-case scenario, works for both parties. "We have almost 100 percent improvement in life back home because of the work we do here," says Felix through his friend and translator Kimon Frantzeskakis. "What we make here in a day is what we make in a week back home." In Mexico, Francisco caddies at a golf course and Felix works on a sugar cane plantation.
How much do they earn here? The pay is $11 an hour (minimum wage for fruit and vegetable workers in Ontario) and they work from about 7 in the morning to 5 or 6 at night, five-and-a-half days a week. Income tax, CPP and EI are deducted from their paycheques and, though they are not eligible for regular EI benefits (for losing work), they can claim special benefits (sickness, maternity and parental leave) if they have worked enough hours. They can also get CPP back home once they turn 65.
"They make anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a season," says Paul Burnham, who began to hire foreign workers when his market garden business kept expanding in the late 1990s. "We bought the market in 1994 and started with an acre and a half of strawberries," he says. "All the help we had at the time was local, and we found there were some days it was hard to find anyone to come out, especially on weekends and at the end of the berry season when the picking wasn't as good." Burnham now has 30 acres in fruit and vegetables – asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, peas, beans, pumpkins and apples – and another 1,400 acres in cash crops. He has four workers helping this year, Felix and Francisco and two more Mexicans coming in June, and he has to guarantee them a minimum of 40 hours a week. "I've had up to six guys during the apple season," he says, "and you can also transfer guys in. Say a potato farmer no longer needs his workers in September, he can say, 'OK, I've got a guy available and if you want to transfer him into your farm, you can do that.'"
All the recruitment and administration for the SAWP is handled by a non-profit agency called Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.). Farmers pay a fee for this service and are happy to have someone else handle the paperwork. No such luck for the farmers who hire agricultural workers from countries outside Mexico and the Caribbean. "The process is like the KGB," says Lou Della Civita. "You gotta do blood work, check the criminal record, and they keep changing the system. My wife does the paperwork and everything is ready by mid-November. But they say, no, you can't submit the papers till after January 1st. Fine, now they've delayed it even later. But these are live plants, they need maintenance or we have tremendous losses."
THEIR LABOUR, OUR FRUITS
According to stats from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, there were 640 hectares in fruit and vegetable crops in Northumberland in 2011, and 741 hectares in Prince Edward County. Apples and grapes accounted for the largest cash receipts, totaling $9 million. But the production of fruit and vegetables creates cultural identity, as well. Drive east along Highway 2 from Port Hope – the apple route – and it's orchard after orchard: Burnham's, Moore's, Knight's, Deleeuw's, Rutherford's, Dunnett's – all family-owned. South on Highway 33 into Prince Edward County, the grape vines take over in a wine industry that has exploded in the past 14 years.
Who hasn't swivelled to look at the Big Apple in Colborne off the 401 and thought pies, pecks and cider? Or heard the buzz about wine-making and its close relative, artisanal food, in Prince Edward County? These crops have put the region on the international map, and virtually all of this productivity is made possible by the manual labour of people who come from southern climes, who are prepared to be away from their families for most of every year because the money is worth it. Let's face it, migrant agricultural workers do the work we no longer want to do. Although employers have to advertise locally before they can hire foreign workers, the poor response they get says it all. "People would rather work at Wal-Mart in air conditioning than in the fields," says Lou.
"It's a hard job and only from April to November, so it's not great for a breadwinner here," adds Johannes Braun, the operations manager at Norman Hardie Winery across the road from Casa-Dea. "It's challenging physical work with a lot of bending and kneeling, for minimum wage, and young people would rather flip burgers at McDonald's."
I get a sense of the challenge when Braun's employee Uthen Khamdee, 32, hands me his hoe and says, "Want to try?" I struggle to push the heavy soil on either side of the vine to expose the base. This is de-hilling, and Uthen tells me it's the hardest part of the work in the vineyard, that picking is easy by comparison. I get it, especially after doing the math: Norman Hardie has 50 acres of vines and there are 2,200 vines per acre, that's 110,000 vines to de-hill. The rule of thumb is one worker for five acres – eek, that's 11,000 vines per person.
The cycle starts in the spring with cutting dead canes and taking them out of the vineyard, says Braun. Then comes de-hilling, repositioning the shoots, plucking leaves to expose the fruit to the sun and then the four-week harvest. In December, many of the Thai workers transfer to the gigantic greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario for the winter months. There, the tomato plants offer no end of tending, until spring comes again and the workers head back to this region. The rules introduced in 2011 say they can do two 20-month cycles like this, with a four-month break in between, before going home for four years.
How do they cope? They're used to hard work, for starters, and they stay in touch with loved ones via calling cards and face time. Although the language barrier makes it difficult to interact with local residents, "there is a relatively big Thai community in the county that they associate with," says Braun. "They bike around to visit their friends and we drive them to Picton or Wellington for clothes and food shopping."
Plus, the money they earn is powerful incentive. Uthen, who comes from a rural community five hours from Bangkok and has a wife back home, says, "I can save money, buy land and grow more rice."
As for living conditions, Braun has built living quarters for seven people and now needs to expand, and Casa-Dea has two mobile homes for its workers. There are bunk beds in the six bedrooms (Phaithoon has his own room), a living room, kitchen, two bathrooms and laundry facilities. (Housing for migrant workers is inspected every year.) Outside, there's a huge vegetable garden and Lou provides them with laying hens so they can have fresh eggs.
Back in the orchards along Highway 2, the pattern of life is similar, though the workers are predominantly Jamaican and Mexican. Lambert Reid is a veteran. At 56, he has been working at Knight's Appleden since 1982. "There were lots of young folks coming at the time; it was a good opportunity for me," he says over tea at the Colborne Tim Horton's. "I could have stayed in Jamaica and made a living, but in Canada I could help myself faster and get off on a better foot. I could bring home a nice pair of shoes for my dad and send clothing to my other siblings."
So he kept coming back, year after year, until the Knights asked him to stay longer...and longer. "You have to work like hell because they give you one chance, and I made use of that one chance," he says. "If you don't work hard, they don't request you the following year." Reid is now a foreman, supervising more than 150 workers during the apple harvest. He picks them up at the airport, takes them to the doctor and to get groceries, and sets a standard for work at the orchard.
"When I go to work, I don't fool around," he says. "I always read the bible and what it says is an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, regardless. What- ever you do, do it at the best of your ability. The people who work around me know I don't put up with foolishness. If you come to work, we're going to work."
Reid gets up at five in the morning, makes his breakfast, packs his lunch and is in the field at 7:30. The workday goes till 5p.m., with two 10-minute breaks in the day and half an hour for lunch at noon. "We're winter pruning now and tomorrow we're supposed to start planting," he tells me at the end of April. After that comes spraying (wearing protective clothing), then thinning in June, where they break up the bunches of fruit to get bigger apples. "The pruning and spraying continues all summer till the harvest," he says. "It's a process, an everyday process. You have to keep on top of these things."
During the harvest, each worker picks at least three large bins of apples per day, wearing a harness with an expandable bag as they move through the orchard. They work flat out, seven days a week to bring in the fruit during that period, but otherwise get a day and a half off per week.
Over the past 33 years, this work has allowed Reid to put his four children through school. He has two sons and two daughters; the two youngest live in the States (his daughter is a doctor in Long Island and his youngest son, a flight attendant in Pittsburgh) and the older ones are still in Jamaica – his eldest son is an engineer and his eldest daughter is a customs officer at the airport.
Admittedly, Reid, who has been in Canada full-time since 2008 on an extended work visa and has applied for – and been denied – permanent residency several times, is at one end of the migrant worker spectrum. Many, perhaps most others, have a tougher time of it here, struggling with the language, finding it difficult to get medical help when they need it, navigating a foreign system. But hubs of support have emerged to help them out.
Horizons of Friendship and the New Canadians Centre (NCC) in Cobourg have Spanish-speaking personnel to help with communication, and the NCC provides welcome packages with clothing and toiletries, and puts on welcome and farewell dinners for all the migrant workers in the area at the Fellowship Baptist Church on Elgin Street.
Meanwhile, in Brighton, The Friends With Migrant Workers group arose a few years ago when folks from Trinity-St. Andrews United Church got together and started talking about how they could help build community with the people who were such a vital part of the local food economy.
"We wanted to provide a safe space to socialize and put them at ease about our system," says Sharon Graham. The outreach includes driving them to medical appointments in Trenton in the evening, collecting used or inexpensive items they need (suitcases, warm clothing and footwear, bicycles, laptops, a top-loading washing machine, a barbeque for cooking jerk chicken at their bunkhouse) and hosting a dinner every second Sunday from mid- July through mid-October, where the 40-odd workers can gather for a friendly meal and share stories and concerns. "We've become really good friends with some of them," says Graham, who hosted a dinner at her home on April 28 for five workers who had just returned. "It was just so nice to see the guys again."
That's how Lou feels too, and it's part of why he's sad Phaithoon and others of his Thai workers have to get on a plane to Bangkok in August, perhaps never to return. "The government says to us they want to allow other people to have the opportunity," says Lou. "OK, but at the same time it affects our industry. If I have seven or eight guys leaving in August, my time to train new guys is forever. Why can't we extend them till at least the end of the season?"
The new four-year cap on work permits is severing relationships that have evolved over time to be much more than anonymous hands in the dirt. These people have skills that enable orchard, wine and market-garden businesses to thrive. And everyone admits that without migrant labour these businesses wouldn't even exist. "I would say bluntly, without workers, fold everything and go home, we're all done," says Lou, as he climbs back on his tractor. Powerful words to ponder the next time you sip a County chardonnay, bite into a local apple or pick up a pint of berries on Highway 2.