TLAXCALA STATE, MEXICO—The lemon-coloured house set behind a bright blue gate is Blanca Islas Perez’s great pride. Nestled in a sheltered valley, it is surrounded by farm-studded hills that come alive every morning to the sound of roosters and dogs. But the crops that paid for the one-bedroom bungalow were grown nearly 4,000 kilometres away, in the apple orchards and tobacco fields of eastern Canada.
In 1984, Islas’s husband Artemio Rodriguez became part of an early wave of Mexico’s rural poor who migrate every year to plant and pick Canadian produce, hoping to provide his family a better life. Today, the couple’s front door opens into a small living room, where a portrait hangs of the couple and their five grown children.
Rodriguez has been photoshopped in.
In the decades since he first journeyed north, his family’s lives have changed in profound and unexpected ways, with two generations now bound to — and broken by — Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
As temporary foreign worker schemes expand throughout North America, the Star spent nine months reporting across Mexico and Canada to follow this cycle of migration and its impact on families. For the first time, the Star has also obtained records of thousands of complaints made by seasonal agricultural workers to the Mexican government about their Canadian employers, ranging from reports of snake-infested bunkhouses to wage theft to physical assault.
On a farm in Ontario, a migrant labourer reported working more than 23 hours straight. In Quebec, another reported living conditions so unsanitary they caused a scabies outbreak. Workers in Nova Scotia reported being forced to live in an abandoned church with 36 people and no bathrooms. In British Columbia, a complaint said workers were forbidden from drinking water while working.
The bulk of these complaints are never shared with the Canadian government or investigated by Canadian officials.
The labour pipeline bringing migrant workers to Canada is a “model of international co-operation,” according to Mexican authorities. The locally grown fruits, flowers, and vegetables they harvest are an economic engine and an ethical choice for consumers, the Ontario government says. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has described the initiative to Members of Parliament as one of the “best development programs” on offer for workers’ families in Mexico to advance.
But in submissions to the federal government this year, migrant worker advocates call it a form of indentured labour — whose realities are almost entirely invisible to Canadians.
This summer, Ottawa implemented new reforms to protect these vulnerable workers. The measures include a new provision that will give open work permits to some migrant labourers who can document abuse, allowing them to leave their employer without losing their legal right to work in Canada.
Despite this important step forward, advocates say the program’s structure remains fundamentally unchanged since Rodriguez’s first journey north: one built on racialized workers who can almost never exit a bad job or gain permanent residency here; one that splits loved ones apart for decades; and one where families must sometimes navigate devastating losses with almost no support.
“Sometimes, going far away is a disadvantage. Sometimes it’s even destructive,” says Islas’s youngest daughter, now 30.
“For me, I find it very scary because of what happened to my dad.”
Islas has kept every letter her husband ever wrote to her from Canada in a dark green briefcase inside a glass cabinet in her bedroom, hoping they will one day unravel a mystery that has gnawed at her for decades.
She is waiting to find out why 29 years ago, Rodriguez boarded a flight bound for Quebec, and never came home.
To the then-30-year-old Rodriguez, it seemed like a golden ticket: a letter of recommendation that would earn him a prized job as a migrant farm worker.
With this simple endorsement, he boarded his first ever flight — leaving behind the little town where he met and married his wife.
Today, a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus overlooks their village, arms outstretched to the valley below. From this vantage point the entire town is visible, including its three stone silos storing maize, a staple that has been cultivated by farmers here for generations. The crop is of near-spiritual significance: without corn, it’s said, there is no country.
As newlyweds, Islas and Rodriguez relied mainly on a small plot of land, passed down from his father, to survive. But sometimes, the land failed them. When they had no other way to eat, Islas would forage along the banks of the river winding through the edge of town, searching for wild beans. The couple would go on to have five children; their daughters are the only two still living permanently in the village.
Rodriguez was the first in his family to leave. In the early ’80s, Mexico was in the throes of what is now called the Lost Decade, when low-income rural Mexicans saw government support programs for peasant farmers eviscerated by the country’s debt crisis.
“He wanted to prosper and provide the best to his kids, because he couldn’t here,” Islas says. “So he went to Canada.”
The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program began as a stopgap labour pact with Jamaica in 1966. Since then, it has expanded to nine other countries, and Mexico is by far the largest participant. Of the roughly 36,000 workers who came to Canada last year through the program, more than 25,000 were Mexican — a 3,600 per cent increase from when Rodriguez joined in 1984.
This source of cheap labour wouldn’t exist without the deep inequality that drives labour migration, says Fay Faraday, a Toronto-based human rights lawyer and assistant professor at York University. Domestic agricultural reform and free trade agreements with Canada and the United States displaced an estimated 4.9 million small-scale Mexican farmers who couldn’t compete with large-scale farms to the north. An explosion of violence linked to drug cartels and organized crime further damaged the economy. Today, about 44 per cent of Mexico’s population lives in poverty.
“Now they have to find a new way to survive, and one of these ways is migration,” says Claudia Maya, an economics professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After India, Mexico had the highest number of emigrants in the world in 2017.
In some villages, handwritten posters stuck on telephone poles advertise “totally legal” routes to Canada to fill an “urgent” need for Mexican workers in factories. The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is more appealing: since it is government regulated, Canadian employers are mandated to pay provincial minimum wage and respect basic workplace protections. Plus, Canada has an appetite: the agricultural industry says it’s losing billions of dollars a year due to labour shortages.
Seasonal agricultural workers can be in Canada for up to eight months a year. But the program does not offer the possibility of moving here permanently. Many workers spend most of their adult lives — sometimes up to 40 years — split between two countries, without ever gaining permanent residency in Canada.
Rodriguez would never see the changes wrought on his village, like the pockmarked building scarred by a recent gunfight between huachicoleros — fuel thieves who sell gas on the black market. Even the little grove harbouring the town’s maize silos has changed. Nearby, the army recently set up a small, dark green outpost; outside, a soldier in camouflage stands watch behind a pile of sandbags, assault rifle trained on the street.
Islas will only speak in hushed tones of the violence seeping into town. She is worried it will scare her two grandchildren, Lesli and Luis Angel, from going to primary school.
Islas’s hilltop plot of land is up a rocky trail, past a blue chapel where farmers pray for rain to break the heat. In the distance is a snow-capped mountain range. In Aztec legend, the four peaks represent the body of a grief-stricken woman who died believing her lover to be lost in battle.
On a bright spring day, Islas and her son Jorge climb the hill to start turning over the soil for planting. The gnarled cactus lining the field will be sliced up and roasted over an open fire for lunch, served with soup and lemon water. Islas’s children can trace some of their earliest memories to working here with their father, before he started his annual journey to Canada.
“He would tell them he’d gone far away to give them the best he could, and that he felt bad leaving them behind,” Islas recalls.
Family is at the heart of the program’s recruitment. Last year, 96 per cent of Mexican migrant workers to Canada were married. Single male workers weren’t even allowed by the Mexican authorities to participate until 2016. The edict existed because the Canadian government didn’t want unattached workers who may want to stay in the country permanently, according to Mexican Ministry of Labour official Enrique Evangelista Cortes.
Canada has several immigration streams that allow employers to hire temporary foreign workers to “address a specific, short-term labour need” in sectors where Canadians are “not available.” Historically, the programs have not provided a way for temporary workers to live here long-term.
This has led to criticism that the programs are exploitative, fail to address long-term labour needs, and drive down Canadian wages. This year, the federal government responded with an initiative to give migrant caregivers a pathway to permanent residency in Canada, and a new pilot program to allow a limited number of other temporary foreign workers to gain permanent residency as well. But seasonal agricultural workers don’t meet the pilot’s eligibility criteria, which require at least 12 months prior continuous work in the country.
Instead, the right of these temporary workers to be in Canada remains almost completely tied to their annual contract with a single employer. Speaking out about abuse can effectively mean losing their job and removal from the country. A 2015 study by Western University law professor Michael Lynk notes that because of their precarious immigration status, it’s next to impossible for migrant farm workers to exercise their basic right to leave an abusive workplace.
Shortly before this year’s growing season started in Canada, dozens of workers pack into a small room for their mandatory training session at a leafy, rural outpost of the Mexican government. For about an hour, they’re drilled on the protocol for arriving at the airport, boarding their flight, and paying Canadian taxes. No matter how many times people attend these sessions, the instructor laments, these things always seem to confuse people.
The second part of the training is about workers’ rights in Canada. Workers are given a phone number for the Mexican consulate to report problems. Then workers are told to be pleasant, obey the law, work hard, and abstain from physical or verbal violence on their farm. The talk lasts about five minutes.
“Don’t forget,” the instructor concludes, “a lot of people want to get on this program.”
The remark riles the previously hushed crowd.
Bosses send one man to do the work of three, a worker tells the instructor. If we complain, we might not get called back to Canada, adds another.
“Every year it’s the same,” says one man later. “We ask for more support. And we never get it.”
Not long after the spring training session, workers disembark from their village buses near Benito Juarez International Airport on Mexico City’s eastern edge. By 7 p.m., a row of Air Canada ticket counters is obscured by a sea of baseball caps, some emblazoned with Leafs or Tiger-Cats logos. Tonight, some 120 workers have gathered with small suitcases and duffel bags. It is their turn to ship out to southern Ontario’s rich farmland.
The tension is palpable. The flight to Toronto won’t leave for another five hours. But latecomers who miss the Mexican Ministry of Labour’s roll call could lose their placement. Wait-listed workers have shown up at the airport too, hoping to snag a last-minute spot on the program.
Nearby, a large screen displays a tourism ad of scenic mountains.
“Sensational Canada!” it exclaims.
During Rodriguez’s first few years abroad, this land seemed promising. Writing home to his wife, he said the work was hard but his employers were kind, and he was glad to be supporting his family. Then, in 1989, he was moved to a vegetable farm in Lavaltrie, Que., an hour east of Montreal. Typical of his letters home, he urged Islas not to worry and to trust in God. But his stoic tone began to shift.
Islas remembers one incident Rodriguez told her about during his first year at the farm in Lavaltrie. It was chilly and damp, and Rodriguez said he and his fellow workers were toiling on their knees through waterlogged rows of crops. They didn’t have coveralls or boots to keep out the mud and cold. So Rodriguez contacted the Mexican consulate in Montreal and asked that their employer provide equipment.
“The boss got very mad, he screamed at him and told him he didn’t want him there anymore,” Islas recalls.
Lawyer and York professor Faraday, who has written three extensive reports on Canada’s migrant worker programs for the Toronto-based Metcalf Foundation, says this kind of experience is still common.
“At all levels they are not treated as people with rights,” she says. “They are treated as fuel to be burned up.”
At the end of each year’s contract, workers can raise concerns about their working conditions in Canada through reports provided to officials at Mexico’s Ministry of Labour. The Star has obtained records of 3,100 such complaints filed since 2009. The volume is small compared to the total number of workers coming annually. But Faraday says it’s significant given the enormous pressure to say nothing.
The complaints seen by the Star are detailed reports that often impact a farm’s entire migrant workforce, and often cite multiple issues. Living conditions are the single biggest concern, raised by workers on more than 1,200 separate occasions. The complaints include reports of workers living in a rat-infested garage, in a bunkhouse with open latrines and no running water, or sleeping on tables or in armchairs because there were not enough beds.
“The worker reports that living conditions are poor, first of all because excrement comes up through the drains so it is impossible to shower inside. They have to wash themselves outside. The house is also infested with bugs,” says one complaint about an Ontario farm from 2017.
On 827 occasions, workers reported poor working conditions and punishing hours of work, and in more than 600 others, complained of late, erratic, or incomplete payment. In one case, a worker said they weren’t allowed to use the bathroom or drink water while working because it “wasted time and money.” In another, a worker said they had to work from 6 a.m. one day to 5:30 a.m. the next because rain was forecast.
Workers also reported 472 cases of dangerous working conditions, including lack of protective equipment, lack of training, injuries, and exposure to unsafe chemicals causing respiratory problems, vomiting, nosebleeds, rashes, cramps and diarrhea. Yet in 456 instances, workers reported that their employers refused to take them for medical help when they fell ill or suffered a workplace accident.
In another 117 cases, workers also reported physical abuse or aggression — like a 2015 complaint about an Alberta employer threatening a worker with a rifle. In almost 600 cases, the reported abuse was verbal — with some workers claiming their bosses told them they were “donkeys,” had “sh- for brains,” or were “Mexican garbage.”
Amongst the 3,100 complaints, one key issue stands out: In 167 instances, workers said when they asked for help from the Mexican consulate in Canada, they were ignored.
“The employer treats workers badly. The worker said the accommodation is bad and they had to kill snakes inside of it. The house only has cots to sleep on and there is no heating,” reads a 2012 complaint about a B.C. farm.
“The consulate knew of this situation, but did not do anything.”
After his first year in Lavaltrie came to an end, Rodriguez didn’t want to go back to Quebec, and asked the Mexican authorities to send him somewhere else in Canada. The request was denied. Islas was alarmed when, shortly before his departure, Rodriguez began angrily punching the wall at the thought of leaving. She tried calming him down, and urged him not to return.
Rodriguez decided to go one last time. He wanted his family to have a small truck to use on their plot of land in Mexico, and he needed the money to buy it.
The farm where he last worked sits on a quiet Quebec country road that cuts through neat, rectangular plots of land. In a grainy video from the time, Rodriguez, a slim man with a trim moustache and plaid shirt, can be seen emerging from a sky-blue mobile home. It sits on a tidy green yard, within eyesight of his employer’s house.
Jacques Vaes, his former boss, is retired now and has moved across the street into an airy, newly built home flanked by stately trees. He was the first to bring Mexican migrant workers to the area, he says. As far as he can tell, the program is still a success.
“If the workers still come and it’s always the same ones, it’s because they must be treated well,” he says.
To this day, migrant workers have very little control over where they end up in Canada. Workers can ask the Mexican authorities to switch farms if the conditions are poor. But even if the request is granted, new workers — either from Mexico or one of the nine other countries that participate in the program — can simply be sent in their place. The only exception is if the Canadian authorities investigate and ban the farm for abuse.
Of the roughly 2,600 farms that hire through the program annually, a total of three have been banned since 2016.
The hundreds of annual complaints made by Mexican workers to their own Ministry of Labour aren’t shared directly with Canadian authorities. Instead, they are given to Mexico’s Ministry of International Relations and sometimes investigated by the five Mexican consular officials scattered across Canada, says Cortes, the Mexican labour ministry official. If the information is “verified,” it is passed on to the Canadian government.
Last year, the Canadian authorities received 52 such tips. About half led to inspections, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said. In 20 per cent of cases, the tips were deemed unrelated to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, or were already being investigated.
A “variety of actions” were taken for the remaining 30 per cent of tips including “having notations added to the system.”
Workers can be sent back to Mexico by their employer or consulate for almost any reason. Over the past decade, more than 5,500 workers have been repatriated mid-way through their contract, often against their will. This threat is a powerful tool. Workers have repeatedly told their Ministry of Labour that employers use it to demand faster work, longer hours and to get rid of sick or injured workers — even though, as taxpayers, they’re entitled to medical treatment in Canada.
“The worker comments that they fell ill and needed to go to the doctor but the boss did not give them permission,” says a 2017 complaint about an Ontario farm. “The worker continued to work while ill but says that sick workers were never allowed to go to the doctor. He believes this is why he got sent home to Mexico early.”
Vaes says he doesn’t remember any issues with the authorities when he was in charge of his farm, including the dispute over working conditions and protective gear Rodriguez told his wife about. Vaes does remember, on a Saturday morning in early July 1990, going to pick up workers for a day in the fields. On that day, one person in the bunkhouse said he was too sick to come: Artemio Rodriguez.
“Sunday we weren’t working,” Vaes says. “On Monday morning, he was gone.”
One weekend in late July, Islas was hurrying to finish chores around her home. Rodriguez would usually call the village’s public telephone on Sundays to catch up, but recently he’d been unusually silent. Hoping to hear from him, Islas sent her mother and daughter to wait by the booth.
As she washed down her patio, she suddenly heard shouting. Without pausing to put on shoes, Islas dashed to the phone where an unknown woman was on the line. Something had gone wrong. Rodriguez, the woman told her, was dead.
Islas has no memory of what happened next. The other villagers have since told her she dropped the phone and ran barefoot through the streets screaming.
The weeks that followed provided little comfort. She says the Mexican government gave her almost no explanation about what happened. She was told her husband’s body was found in a Chicago airport, which made no sense to Islas since he’d been working in Quebec. Because Rodriguez hadn’t died on a Canadian farm, she was told she and her five children were not entitled to any financial compensation.
Her only option to support her family, she was told, was to go to Canada in his place.
But her youngest daughter, Blanca, was still a baby. So Islas waited until she turned 12 before making her first journey north, choosing in the interim to survive selling trinkets in the streets. In 2002, she became the first woman in her village to join the migrant worker program in Canada, helping her hang on to her little yellow house and providing a buffer for the unexpected. The Star is not naming her hometown because families who receive remittances from migrant workers abroad are sometimes the target of crime.
For her children, her yearly departure rips the hole left by Rodriguez’s death a little wider.
“It has always affected me. In school, we would make gifts on Father’s Day but I had no one to give them to,” says Blanca.
“I miss my mom a lot when she leaves and sometimes get scared, because she is the only parent I have.”
Islas has sometimes struggled in Canada. A few summers ago, she smashed her foot after falling off her bike on her way to send money home to her family. She didn’t know how to call for emergency assistance, and didn’t know her address in English. When a co-worker called her employer, he said he was busy and would not be able to take Islas to hospital for four hours.
Her ankle had to be screwed back together and she was hospitalized for a month, according to her medical records. This included two weeks in a long-term care facility because she couldn’t be discharged to her bunkhouse where 10 women shared two bedrooms and one bathroom. Her boss never contacted her about her injury. When she called the area’s Mexican consular official, he said he would ensure she received support.
That, she says, was the last she ever heard from him.
Not long after, the farm was sold and Islas returned to Mexico. She now works on a new farm near Niagara Falls, a natural wonder she remembers from a postcard Rodriguez sent home more than 30 years ago. When she first saw the landmark with her own eyes, she called up her family. It felt surreal that her husband’s life in Canada, which once felt impossibly distant, was now suddenly hers.
Islas says she is relieved by the conditions at the new farm. The trailer she shares with 10 other women is new and spotless. She is always allowed to go to the doctor when sick. Sometimes, the women receive a free English class. Printouts with helpful phrases are taped to the trailer wall.
“I feel fortunate to be working for you,” reads one. “I would love to return here next year.”
Her narrow bedroom, which she shares with another worker, overlooks tidy rows of greenhouses. At the base of her single bed there is a thin, green book in Spanish on dealing with trauma. It’s been hard to shake the anxiety and sadness caused by her husband’s death, and the uncertainty of what happened.
Over the past few months, the letters Islas carefully preserved in her green briefcase have helped to track down Rodriguez’s former employers in Canada, to find eyewitnesses, and to file freedom-of-information requests for clues. On a hot summer day in July, Islas walks to a small park overlooking Lake Ontario to listen to what the responses reveal.
It’s too late now for full answers; ultimately, all the exercise will show is how little was ever done in the first place.
Jacques Vaes, the Quebec farmer who last employed Rodriguez, remembers him as a good worker, one of his best. Vaes doesn’t know why he suddenly disappeared, but learned he was eventually found by the Mexican consulate seeking shelter at a Spanish-speaking church in Montreal’s east end. Apparently, Rodriguez had asked to be moved to a different farm. Instead, the consulate decided to repatriate him to Mexico.
He was brought back to the farm briefly to collect his belongings. It was the last time Vaes saw him.
On July 20, 1990, Rodriguez boarded an Air Canada flight bound for Chicago. Once in Chicago, he was to transfer to a Delta Airlines flight to Mexico City. But Rodriguez didn’t have the transit visa required to stop over in the United States, according to a Cook County case report from the time. The report describes him as “to be deported” by U.S. immigration authorities.
Ronald Claypool was the Delta manager on duty at Chicago O’Hare International Airport that afternoon. He remembers Rodriguez as a nice-looking young man travelling with a single carry-on bag. Because of his visa issues, he had to be escorted off his Air Canada flight and kept under observation behind Delta’s ticket counter. Rodriguez seemed serious, and extremely quiet. He couldn’t communicate in English. But even when some Mexicana Airlines employees approached him, he appeared withdrawn.
When it came time to board, Rodriguez was missing. So at around 3:40 p.m., a senior ticket agent named Lloyd Kirkwood went looking for him. Eventually, he found 37-year-old Rodriguez in a little-used employee changeroom.
He was hanging from the shower head by the neck.
Claypool ran to assist when he heard Kirkwood shouting. But it was too late to help. Later that night, Claypool remembers police arriving and opening Rodriguez’s small bag. It was stuffed full of letters from his wife and children. The authorities also found a vial of injectable arthritis medication, used at the time to relieve extreme pain. The bag contained $700 in American money, which the police counted out on the Delta break room table. Claypool doesn’t recall who took it. He was never contacted again about the death.
“In my 35-year career with Delta, that’s probably one of the most disheartening things I had to go through,” Claypool says. “And I went through a lot of them.”
When the Star visited the Mexican consulate in Montreal, the official responsible for the migrant worker program said even if Rodriguez’s file still existed, it couldn’t be shared for privacy reasons. Subsequent questions sent to the e-mail address listed on the official’s business card bounced back.
Jacques Vaes sold his share of the farm to family members about 15 years ago. Now called Les Jardins Vaes, it describes itself online as a fourth-generation operation that “meets all the ethical standards of market gardening.” It still uses migrant workers.
There was only one complaint about the establishment in the Mexican Ministry of Labour records obtained by the Star. Two years ago, a worker told the Mexican authorities payment was late, incomplete, and included illegal deductions.
“Treatment by the employer is very bad,” the complaint reads. “They act like a despot.”
Last year, the Quebec Ministry of Labour conducted a health and safety inspection at the farm, according to records obtained through a freedom-of-information request. It was the first inspection in 18 years.
The farm employed 25 temporary foreign workers, the report says. There was no training program in place. Workers, including those handling pesticides, had not been given protective equipment.
As a result of the inspection, the farm was “invited” to submit an annual “self-evaluation” of its workplace practices to the ministry.
The sky-blue mobile home where Rodriguez last lived is gone. It has been replaced with a permanent bunkhouse with one bedroom. The Star went to the farm to request an interview with the current owner, Maxime Vaes. After several interview requests, a family member called the police. A family member also entered the Star’s vehicle, removed a tape recorder, and threw it into a field.
Later that night, Maxime Vaes called. He said he had no knowledge of the complaint to the Mexican authorities or the health and safety inspection report. He said his farm’s track record was “perfect” and that the farm had never received any complaints from workers.
“They have everything they need to do their work,” he said.
There never appears to have been any kind of formal investigation into Rodriguez’s death — by anyone. His body was left at a Latino funeral home on Chicago’s northwest side catering to “ship outs,” or sending home migrant workers’ bodies. Islas says she paid for the cost herself. She never heard about the $700 found on Rodriguez, and never received any of it.
Hearing details of his death, Islas’s small frame shakes with sadness and anger. It’s impossible to know why someone takes their own life. This part of the wound — the uncertainty — will never close. But whatever his experience in Canada, she believes it must have changed Rodriguez in some profound and desperate way.
Although almost 40 years have passed since Rodriguez first journeyed north, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program’s structure is still “basically the same,” lawyer and York professor Faraday says. In fact, temporary migration has become entrenched in more and more parts of the Canadian economy. Faraday describes these sectors as “sacrifice zones” that effectively deny workers basic rights — and drag down working standards for everyone.
“People always say we need to bring in migrant labour because Canadians won’t do the job,” she says. “And that really is the laziest form of justification of the status quo.”
In August, with the assistance of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a Mexican seasonal agricultural worker became the first successful applicant for an open work permit. The worker testified that his Quebec-based employer did not provide him with safety training or equipment, would not allow him to drink water on the job, chased him down a field when he fell ill while working, and threatened to repatriate him to Mexico.
Open work permits will allow seasonal agricultural workers to leave an exploitative farm and find a job elsewhere. But without support, the application seems almost impossible for migrants to complete. Documentary evidence must be translated into English or French by a certified translator, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Applications are only accepted online. The website is only in English and French.
Ultimately, says Faraday, the move is a “Band-Aid solution” that does nothing to address workers’ precarious immigration status.
“It doesn’t address the fact that what you have is a system that is structurally designed to create the conditions that facilitate abuse.”
That system, the one touted as a way for the rural poor to get ahead, worries Islas. This splintered life, one permanently torn between two places, is one now shared by many in her family. Her eldest son works on a farm in Quebec. Her brother and nephew work on a farm two hours away from her, near Orangeville. She has never seen them in Canada. Once, she contacted a Mexican driver operating in the area, hoping to visit them. The driver told her he would take her there for $600 return, a price she couldn’t afford.
“That’s what I earn in a week,” she says.
For almost a month, there’s been a lull in production at Islas’s greenhouse. Some workers have gone in search of odd jobs. Legally, they’re bound to one employer. But with no money coming in, they need a way to survive. Some find a gig on a nearby farm; it pays $11 an hour, $3 below Ontario’s minimum wage.
This is the life her grandchildren may share one day. That is why Islas wants others to see it clearly.
“My children suffered because they got nothing except what I could give them myself. I wish the government and employers would consider this, because the bosses are making a lot of money off us,” she says.
“Canadians don’t understand the sacrifices we make.”
This story was made possible with the financial assistance of the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship.
Mexico fixer: Aaraón Díaz Mendiburo
Spanish translation: Karina Azanza, Brian McDougall, and Sonia Aviles.
Digital production: Tania Pereira, Cameron Tulk, and Kelsey Wilson
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour-related issues. Reach her at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz