Farmworkers pay taxes, EI and CPP but aren’t eligible for most benefits, protesters say
The sounds of chants, drums and marching feet echoed around Virgil on Sunday afternoon as people gathered to protest growing concerns about racism in Canada and to demand citizenship for migrant farm workers.
“The reality is that, in Canada, we are living in a two-tier society,” Kit Andres, a march organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said in an interview outside Niagara-on-the-Lake’s town hall.
“People have more or less rights depending on their immigration status. There’s 1.6 million people in Canada who don’t have permanent status,” she said.
That means one in 23 people in Canada do not have access to the same privileges a citizen does, such as universal health care, even if they work and spend most of their lives in the country, like many of NOTL’s migrant workers do, she said.
Andres said the temporary work programs and difficult paths to citizenship offered by Canada are not enough.
“When workers and refugees and migrants and undocumented people have permanent status, that gives them access to health care, education — it enables them to be together with their families.”
Similar marches took place across Canada and around the world. Cities such as Toronto, St. John’s and Calgary participated. Gatherings also were held in several Caribbean countries.
One migrant worker, Gabriel Camacho from Mexico, has been coming to work in Niagara for 22 years.
And, since he does not have a simple route to citizenship, Camacho has spent the majority of those 22 years separated from his wife and kids.
“It’s very sad, each year, to be very far away from the family,” he told The Lake Report.
Camacho is grateful for the work he can get in Canada, noting Mexico can be a challenging place to make a living.
“In Mexico, there’s no opportunities, no jobs. It’s very hard to survive there. Here it is better,” he said.
But family is an essential part of the soul, Camacho said, and he is sad he has missed many of the definitive moments of his children’s lives.
“I left my daughter at four years old and my son when he was six months,” he said.
“I missed my baby’s first steps, her first words. That was very hard for me.”
Camacho said he remembers his son asking him why he never takes him to school, saying, “We need you.”
He said he is lucky to still have his family together because many families of migrant workers disintegrate due to the long periods of separation.
His daughter is in university and his son has graduated. Camacho can look around and see the job opportunities available in Canada and wishes these were available for his children as well.
“My son, in Mexico, he can’t find a job. There are no opportunities. That is why I would like to bring him to Canada,” he said.
One of the challenges of relying on temporary work programs is workers are not able to come to Canada unless they are hired, which makes them beholden to their employers and unable to search for competitive wages and other opportunities.
“I asked the government for permanent residence for all migrants so that we don’t depend on a single employer. That we can have a pension fair enough to live to a dignified old age because we have spent a large part of our lives helping the Canadian economy,” Camacho said in a speech to the crowd translated by organizer Luisa Ortiz Garza.
He often works 14-hour days with no overtime, in brutal cold or blistering heat. He has back problems now due to the labour and no right to use the Canadian health care system.
Migrant workers have taxes, employment insurance and Canada Pension deducted from their pay but don’t enjoy the same benefits as other contributing citizens do.
Camacho noted he has experienced racism from the public and from past employers.
“We deserve a dignified treatment without racism or mistreatment. We deserve respect as workers and as human beings. With permanent residency, we can keep our families together.”
About 50 people were gathered around town hall. They carried banners and marched down to Meridian Credit Union chanting “What do we want? Status for all!” and, “No hate. No fear. Refugees are welcome here.”
Sonia Abilas of St. Catharines was there with her husband and their four children. For her, it was important to demonstrate support for Niagara’s migrant workers and instill values of respect and equality in her children.
“We’re here in solidarity with migrant workers and farm workers specifically, who work here and make great contributions, economically and culturally, to our region,” she said.
“And also to teach my kids to value the importance of migrant farmworkers and ask the government to allow farmworkers to live here, to apply for permanent residency and bring their families.”
The march was also a direct response to the use of racist and hateful imagery associated with some participants in the freedom convoy, Andres said.
“This is not the first time we’ve seen a rise in white nationalists mobilizing and it won’t be the last unless we come together and build strong anti-racist communities,” Andres told The Lake Report in an impassioned email.
“Which is why the fight for full and permanent immigration status for everyone is so crucial in challenging white supremacy.”
Andres noted white supremacist groups look for weak spots in society to take advantage of.
“It’s no surprise that hate groups have exploited the pandemic to recruit and advance their white supremacist agenda. We are all feeling the effects of the past couple years. None of us knows what will happen next and that can feel scary,” she said.
The march “was about coming together as a community and saying that we refuse to respond to fear with hatred and division, including racism and xenophobia. Racism is not welcome in this community – in any form.”
She noted racism is often a tool of those in power, used to manipulate the public into senseless divisions for political gain.
“We refuse to let politicians and bosses use racism to pit us against each other and fight over the scraps,” Andres said.
“We all deserve to live in a fair society and to be together with our loved ones. That’s why migrants, refugees, undocumented people, and their supporters are calling for status for all.”