12/06/2012 12:25 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

One Migrant Worker's Story Is Canada's Story


As part of the Why Poverty? campaign, TVO presents documentaries by filmmakers who are passionately committed to shining a light on the human condition and all of its successes and struggles. As it is with their films, the views expressed in TVO's Why Poverty? blog series are solely the opinion of the filmmaker.

Ten years ago I made a documentary about migrant agricultural workers in Canada, El Contrato. It was my first feature doc and really the only reason it worked was because Teodoro Bello Martinez, a migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico accepted me, my crew and my camera into his life. El Contrato has been used extensively in educational and activist settings to build awareness about the conditions of migrant workers in Canada.

I am interested in the story of workers and migration because I come from a working class family and my life has been fundamentally shaped by migration. My grandfather was a migrant worker who left Korea to work in the logging industry in Japan. My own parents uprooted the family from Korea to settle in Canada when I was four years old. I've always been interested in what happens to families and people's identities and lives when they leave home in search for work.


Migrant workers inhabit a liminal zone in the Canadian consciousness. Their labour is fundamental but their lives are marginalized into forgotten corners. The Canadian consumer, if they do know of the existence of migrant workers generally see these foreign workers as benefiting from the generous Canadian labour economy. The term often used to describe the workers is that they work hard in Canada so that when they go home they can "live like kings." This is a misconception as most migrant workers report that the wages they earn in Canada allow them to pay for basic needs such as shelter, education and food but that excesses are rare and the maintenance of these basics require the worker to continually return to Canada year after year.

Ten years later I re-connected with Teodoro Bello Martinez to make a small short called Teo in Toronto. Here I wanted to look at the meeting between two seemingly different but very connected worlds -- the world of the migrant agricultural worker and the world of young people fighting poverty through community gardens. To me this is an example of how we can organize differently from the margins. As writer and feminist bell hooks has pointed out, instead of seeing the margins as a place of deprivation, it can in face be a source of strength. Being on the margins gives you an edge, and can be a site of radical possibility.

Since I filmed El Contrato, the situation hasn't gotten better, in fact it's gotten worse. Additionally there are more temporary workers in this country who now work in industries beyond agricultural. Foreign workers are brought into Canada to work in factories, the oil industry, poultry killing floors and gas stations. When I shot El Contrato the Canadian government had bilateral agreements with a few Caribbean nations and Mexico, today our government has increased these type of relationships with a host of other countries including: Peru, Colombia, Vietnam, the Phillippines, Guatemala and Honduras.

In 2008 for the first time, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada exceeded the total number of permanent residents admitted in the same year. Large-scale temporary migration has social, political and human implications. Using temporary migrant workers to address permanent labour demands creates a two-tiered society with a "disposable" workforce that is admitted only for its labour, and that has fewer rights and protections than Canadians. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of their lack of status, their isolation and their lack of access to information on their rights, and because the Canadian and most provincial governments don't ensure monitoring of their workplaces. In April of this year Canada introduced a two-tier wage system. Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program allow employers to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent below the wage of their Canadian counterparts.

The current Conservative government has increased the numbers of temporary/migrant workers and simultaneously shut down the doors of immigration to a level of low-skilled, racialized applicants from poorer countries. Citizenship rejection has doubled, 83,382 people have been deported and 72,000 arbitrarily detained, temporary workers have overtaken permanent residents, refugee acceptances has decreased by 25 per cent and and there is a moratorium on sponsoring parents and grandparents.

This isn't just the story of migrant workers. This is the story of how immigration to Canada is racialized and classed. This is an abysmal mirroring of racist immigration legacies that most Canadians think is a thing of the past. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the "None is Too Many" decision towards jews, the turning away of the Komagata Maru that carried hundreds of passengers from Punjab, India. If my parents were to apply today to come into Canada, being low-skilled and non English speaking, they would likely be rejected.