Migrant Workers are Essential: A Rural Perspective

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Migrant workers have long-been a vital component of agriculture – in grape, asparagus, apple, cherry, honey, melon, bok choy, cabbage, squash and other harvests across Canada.

Tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers come to Canada every year, many returning to the same communities for decades.  They live, shop, and worship within the communities.  These workers come to Canada to work in jobs that are often characterized by minimum wage and difficult working conditions. They are jobs that Canadians seem not willing to do.

A report from Statistics Canada, showing that the number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada continues to climb, is indicative of the need for more agriculture workers, say stakeholders.

The Canadian government accepted temporary foreign workers during this pandemic and the TFWs were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine period before starting work.  Some workers stayed in bunkhouses on farms and others stayed in local hotels while still others stayed at the Five Oaks Education and Retreat Centre in Paris before heading to jobs at local farms.  Michael Shewburg, executive director at Five Oaks, said as they welcomed their initial guests – 40 workers from Mexico – the first of many over the season: “We’re serving as an isolation centre for migrant workers’’. On March 18, Five Oaks decided to close the centre to the public.  “We were looking for ways we could contribute to helping out during the pandemic and our first thought was to offer up our facilities’’.   Sandra Vos, president of the Brant County Federation of Agriculture, welcomed the move by Five Oaks.  “That’s a massive help,” she said.

These agricultural workers were often largely invisible to many Canadians, before the ongoing wave of news stories during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has not only made them more visible, but has also highlighted the essential nature of the work they do.  Crops have been left in the fields or cut down due to the lack of labourers.

The county of Norfolk and the village of Vittoria in southern Ontario, were struck with loss beyond unharvested field produce.  A worker from the Scotlynn  Group, died this summer in a London hospital, from the virus.  Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55,  had been coming from Mexico to work at the farm operation since 2010.  The fear and the grief were overwhelming.  Imagine, this father of four left his home in Mexico intent on earning wages to send home to his family to make their future secure.   Imagine, the grief of his family as they lived  through his isolation time, his hospitalization and his death.  He left home never to been seen by his family again.  No welcome home hugs, no kisses, no presents, no laughter.

Migrant worker advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for the health units, local, provincial and federal governments to create a new mechanism for foreign workers to access critical benefits and to keep them safe.

Prayer:  Holy One, awaken our minds, and our hearts.  Let us work for fairness and justice.  Let us listen and discern a way forward for all people.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

Phyllis Buchner, Past President United Church Women.

Membership and Nominating chair, Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada.

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