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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Vigil urges more protection for migrant workers


Migrant workers, friends and strangers who gathered Sunday for a vigil to honour a worker killed by a hit-and-run driver say more has to be done to protect the seasonal staff who are the backbone of Niagara’s fruit and wine industry.

“What happened to this young lady could’ve happened to us because we’re all offshore workers,” said Jermaine Campbell, a migrant worker at Thwaites Farms.

The death of Zenaida, 33, was the second major incident for migrant workers in a matter of days.

A major fire damaged Pioneer Flower Farms in St. Catharines and destroyed the living quarters and belongings of more than 21 seasonal workers. No one was injured but more than 130 workers were affected in total.

Many migrant workers are afraid to speak up, said Kit Andres of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

The workers want both the municipal and federal governments to overhaul transit and road safety infrastructure, provide compensation and protection for workers affected by the Pioneer fire, institute a national migrant worker housing strategy and allow workers to apply for permanent resident status on arrival.

“Seventy per cent of immigration in Canada is temporary,” said Sonia Aviles, one of the vigil’s organizers. “We want a one-tier immigration system. We don’t want temporariness because it creates a system of vulnerability to the workers. They’re exploited.”

Campbell said there should also be a compensation package or a fund in case a migrant worker loses a family member.

About 60 people attended the vigil held in front of St. Davids Hydroponics on Concession 7 Road near Line 6, not far from where Zenaida was run over.

The hit-and-run victim, who only has been identified by her first name at her family’s request, was struck by a speeding truck about 11 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17, while she was walking home after a church picnic. She succumbed to her injuries on Monday afternoon, Aug. 19.

To help cover funeral costs and to provide support to Zenaida’s parents and two young daughters at home in Mexico, pastoral worker Wilfred Bout launched an online GoFundMe page. Over $34,000 has been raised online in less than a week.

Patrick McCabe, 21, surrendered to police last Wednesday and is now free on bail. McCabe is facing charges of fail to stop at the scene of an accident and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, police said.

The vigil organized by the Migrant Workers Alliance was also in support of those who were affected by the Pioneer Flower Farms fire the day before the hit-and-run.

At the vigil, Aviles read the names of some migrant workers who have died in Canada in recent years. The vigil was held in both English and Spanish.

Line 6 resident Sue Greenman said the speed limit on rural roads like Concession 7 should be reduced to 60 km/h from 80 km/h. Adding more bike paths and having a larger police presence on rural roads would be good as well, she told The Lake Report.

Some migrant workers are hired on an employer-specific work permit, commonly known as a “closed” permit, which allows them to work only for the employer named on that permit. Other workers, who are hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, can work for any farm participating in the program. An open work permit is not job-specific.

If migrant workers have a closed permit and have problems with their employers, they will be “stuck” working there, which opens them up to abuse, said Kyle Hoskin, who volunteers with the workers alliance.

“It’s absolutely shameful that we even allow closed-work permits to exist,” Hoskin told The Lake Report. “On top of that, we treat (migrant workers) as second-class citizens. They can’t travel, they have limited rights.”

Under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, workers are allowed to stay in Canada for up to eight months.

In July 2019, the federal government introduced a three-year Agri-Food Immigration Pilot project which is expected to allow farm workers to apply for permanent residency.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Coun. Norm Arsenault were on hand at the vigil, too. Arsenault addressed the crowd, saying their voices are heard at the local level. He said he will bring the issue up at the safety committee meeting and, although he can’t promise anything, the town will help as much as it can to raise awareness and bring the workers’ concerns to the federal government’s attention.

It’s good the councillors were present at the vigil but the alliance wants “words come to action,” Aviles said. The organization’s representatives will be at the St. Catharines Labour Day parade asking people to sign the Unite Against Racism Pledge petition.

“We are part of the Migrant Rights Network and as part our ongoing work, in the context of the upcoming federal elections, we are asking people around our country to sign the pledge to not let politicians divide us using anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Aviles said.

“And most of all, we want for (farm) workers to access permanent resident status on arrival because they contribute to the system. All immigrants in other categories have access to permanent residency when they arrive,” she said.

Anna Belanger, who is an English as a Second Language program co-ordinator at the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre, said everyone deserves “a chance for an equal opportunity in Canada.”

The morning after the vigil, Disero announced the flag at town hall was lowered for the day in memory of Zenaida.

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