BUSINESS
09/09/2014 09:36 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Temporary Foreign Worker Dies In Freak Accident, Leaves Behind Chilling Testimony

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A video uncovered by Radio-Canada paints a grim picture of the working conditions one temporary foreign worker allegedly experienced on an Ormstown farm.

Mexican worker Ivan Guerrero drowned in May on the farm where he worked. Police ruled his death an accident.

Following his death, a local group dedicated to helping migrant workers shared a video they say they recorded with Guerrero last year. On a stark background, the worker speaks directly into the camera, addressing the hardships he says he faces at work.

"Es comosifuera yo...un perro," he says of his boss. “It’s like I'm the dog, and she's my owner.”

He describes long hours, unpaid overtime and limited freedom.

“We are human beings, and I would like to be treated with more dignity,” he says into the camera.  

Guerrero had been coming to Canada for four years, picking vegetables and sending his earnings to his wife and two children back in Mexico. On the first day of what would have been his fifth summer in the country, he passed away while trying to fix a leak near his living quarters. It took three days for someone to contact authorities.

Melvin Mendez works for Somos Hermanos, the group behind the video.

He said he often meets with temporary foreign workers and sometimes records their conversations.

This isn’t the first complaint he’s had about this particular employer.

“We've been visiting this farm for seven years and most of the workers say they have no freedom,” he said.

Workers free to come and go, employer says

Guerrero’s employer declined a formal interview but told Radio-Canada his workers have bicycles and are free to come and go as they please.

He added that they were hired to work and not to party, and said he didn’t like them going out too much for security reasons.

When asked about Guerrero and the delay it took for staff to call police, he explained that the death occurred over the weekend and that he had not noticed Guerrero was missing.

Risky business

About 10 per cent of Quebec's agricultural workforce comes from abroad — mainly from Mexico, Guatemala and the West Indies. This represents about 8,000 men and women.

While most manage to make a good living, some describe their working conditions as closer to slavery and say they have nowhere to turn for help.

Eugénie Depatie-Pelletier, an expert in migrant workers' rights, says the current legislation leaves workers high and dry, and that the government needs to step in.

She also says labour laws don’t protect the agricultural industry as a whole and immigration laws, which dictate that workers must be tied to a specific employer, are also problematic because workers can feel forced to accept unsafe conditions.

“They work when they are very tired, and this of course leads to illnesses and injuries and sometimes even death.”

Depatie-Pelletier says stories like Guerrero's are unfortunately too common, but that his video testimony is exceptional.

She says migrant workers are usually reluctant to speak up for fear of reprisal, and that the only reason his video testimony is now public is because Guerrero has passed away.

"When they face abuse, when they are discriminated against, when they are even sick or injured, they will usually keep silent to make sure they are not being fired. Then they would lose the right to work in Canada,” she said.

Workers are told they can turn to their country's consulates for support, but Depatie-Pelletier says this is often untrue. She explains that foreign worker programs are very lucrative for participating countries, and that consular staff are therefore reluctant to step in for fear of losing the business arrangement.

“What they want to do is to maintain an excellent relationship with employers to make sure that Mexican workers will not be replaced by Guatemalan workers or Honduras workers,” she said.

Bill 8

Depatie-Pelletier says the fight will continue for foreign workers and those advocating for them. She says Bill 8, a proposed amendment to the portion of the labour code related to farm workers, would further disenfranchise foreign workers by taking away their right to unionize.

“They (wouldn’t) have the right to meet on the workplace where actually often times they are confined to that workplace,” Depatie-Pelletier said.

Special consultations and public hearings for Bill 8 start this week.

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