As favourable late season summer weather continues to assist local agriculturalists as they nurture crops to maturity in time for harvest, troublesome issues are also growing in the region’s farm sector amongst the area’s migratory farm labour pools.
Sandy Diaz-Hart, working as a rural advocacy outreach worker for the Penticton and Area Women’s Centre, as well as a volunteer, has devoted much of the past five summers to the cause of the area’s Mexican farmworkers.
She first got involved with a group of 20 workers who were in the Similkameen in 2006. They needed help with language translation, health issues and other things.
“The first year, there were about 20 workers locally. The following year their were 40, and the numbers have continued climbing. This year there are 100 Mexican workers in the valley, and issues are growing over such things as late pay or erratic pay periods, ill or undignified treatment, living and accomodation problems and communication.”
Diaz-Hart has been providing translation services, assistance with bureaucracy, health and other personal issues the imported workers may have while working in the area. She is well known in the Mexican labourer’s local circle and is highly respected for the social services she provides. To many, she is indispensible – especially those who are unfortunate enough to land on a farm where contract conditions are not being met.
An incident that occurred on a Cawston farm recently forced some of these issues to surface, as several workers who felt they had been abused broke their silence and spoke up. The event may illuminate a need for closer government scrutiny regarding a program that in some cases at least, doesn’t speak well for Canada in international circles.
The story, according to Diaz-Hart, began in mid August, when a Mexican labourer named Martin Hernandez misstepped on a rock in a potato field at a farm managed by Sukhvir “Lucky” Singh in Cawston. He badly wrenched his knee, and after a couple of days of pain, was finally able to see a doctor, who attempted to set him up with follow up visits to medical treatment for physio therapy.
He apparently never got it. Instead, he went back to work on his wonky knee. As a Mexican labourer, he is totally dependent upon his employer – or someone like Diaz-Hart – to get around the region.
On September 11, he fell off a ladder and reinjured the knee so badly he couldn’t get up.
His employer took his pickers bag from him and left him on the ground, leaving it to his own devices to get back to his cabin, in which he was left unattended for two days.
He was finally able to see a doctor again, thanks to Diaz-Hart, who drove him to the D and T Centre in Keremeos. The doctor prescribed eight to 10 days of rest, saying that he wasn’t sure how much damage was done, but felt that Martin had suffered some ligament damage.
September 15 was payday at the farm. When the cheques were handed out, Martin was missing his. He questioned this, understanding that since his injury had occurred on the job, he had the right to be paid. His employer refused to admit the injury was job related, and with no access to Worksafe documentation, Martin called the Canadian consulate to get copies of the Worksafe forms. He had them sent to him through a neighbour’s fax machine .
The forms arrived in English, so Diaz-Hart was called to help Martin fill them out.
On Tuesday, September 20, Diaz-Hart related that she went to the farm around 11 a.m.Within five minutes of her arrival, Hernandez’ phone rang. It was Singh’s brother, Sabby. He demanded to know what Diaz-Hart was doing at the farm. The telephone conversation began civilly enough but quickly deteriorated as Singh became more and more agitated. He eventually hung up on Diaz-Hart, who was upset at the way the conversation had gone.
Within minutes, Singh arrived on scene at Martin’s cabin. He was angry, observed Diaz-Hart, shaking his fist and pounding the table. He grabbed Diaz-Hart by the arm and pushed her while exiting the building. Diaz-Hart spoke up in defence of the Mexican labourer, attempting to explain what she was doing there, when Singh suddenly grabbed her Worksafe papers and told her to get off the property.
She told Hernandez not to worry, that she was going for the police, and once off the property called the 911.
“The police were there within seven minutes,” Diaz- Hart related. “They were kind and courteous. They asked me to stay off the property, and they went to speak to Lucky.
After about half an hour, Diaz-Hart was asked back to Hernandez’ cabin to translate for the officer. Statements were taken from fellow workers with respect to Hernandez’ accident.
“He apparently went back to the doctor on September 21,” Diaz Hart said. She continues to attempt to get Worksafe papers to Hernandez so that he can file a claim.
Sukhivar Singh tells a different story regarding Hernandez’ treatment. He said that Hernandez did not tell him about the original accident in the potato field.
“He told us after he twisted his knee on the steps leading into his living quarters,” Singh told the Review. “After that, we took him to the doctor and filed a report with Worksafe BC. He rested for a few days and said he was OK.”
Singh said that Hernandez was then offered work picking tomatoes rather than working in the orchard, but declined, wishing to work alongside his compatriots.
Singh complained that Diaz-Hart trespassed onto his property, talking to the workers during the work day. He said that he didn’t mind her coming to help the workers but she was making “propaganda” by making too much of incidents like this one.
“Who is she? – she is not the boss of us,” Singh said, noting that if the workers had an issue they could contact the consulate and Singh would have to deal with them.
“She should come to us first if there is a problem,” he added.
Singh also pointed out that several of his Mexican workers have been with him for four years, and don’t have any problems.
Diaz-Hart continues to be frustrated and disheartened by the number of complaints that she is receiving from the foreign workers. The complaints aren’t all encompassing – a large number of the imported labourers are very happy with their situation in Canada. Diaz-Hart believes there is evidence of a few employers who are bending – or breaking the rules, and getting away with it due to a lack of oversight. The incident with Hernandez seems to have had the effect of galvinizing the resolve of people like Diaz-Hart and several of the Mexican labourers into resolving to bring attention to the labourers’ issues.
“Our communities need to know that we all need them to put food on our table, and that we are not doing them a favour by having them here working – the farmers need them as much as the Mexicans need the work,” she explained.
“Somewhere things need to change, but how or by whom I don’t know. I just know that every year is the same thing and very little ever changes. I care a great deal about justice and fariness, so I am willing to do my part along with so many other caring people to better our community. I guess we just need more support.”