Saturday, July 03, 2004

London Free Press: News Section - A dream undone

London Free Press: News Section - A dream undone

In the Mexican village of Santa Anna Pilar, the news came over the loudspeaker on top of a car driving up and down the streets. Patricia Jaquez, 32, paid special attention. Her husband could not find a job and one of her three sons, an epileptic, needed expensive medicine.

A few hundred kilometres away in the small city of Francisco Madero, Maria Teresa Aleman, 32, got a phone call from her aunt in the state capital of Saltillo.

Divorced, Aleman and her three boys lived with her parents. Making $35 a week picking tomatoes, she could not afford her dream -- a small plot of land on which to build a shack.

Recruiters here are looking for people, her aunt said. Aleman took the four-hour bus ride to Saltillo to see for herself.

In Saltillo itself, Norma Munoz, 36, got a layoff notice from her job at an auto plants factory. On a tip, she walked to the nearby recruiting office.

There is work picking worms in Canada, the women were told. You can make in one day there what it takes a week to earn in Mexico.

So the three women left their homes, children and partners, arriving in Guelph on May 15, full of dreams.

* * *

Now, six weeks later, Munoz and Aleman are in hiding. They have lost their jobs and have no money. Jaquez is still struggling at a job she describes as "a lot of effort, but little money."

Despite the hardships, the three vow they will not leave Canada without accomplishing what they set out to do -- earn a decent living, and now, make sure no other migrants go through what they did.

"If we don't change anything, we will lose," Munoz declared.

The three women and 37 other Mexicans came to Canada under a little known pilot project that allows employers to privately hire low-skilled workers from other countries.

Migrants usually work on Canada's farms under a long-established program that gives the federal government certain powers, such as the ability to withdraw a farmer's right to get migrants if any are mistreated.

But as it's described on a federal government website, the two-year-old pilot project doesn't allow the Canadian government to "intervene in the employer/employee relationship."

"In Canada, agriculture has a long history of poor labour conditions," said University of Guelph professor and researcher Kerry Preibisch.

The pilot project, with loose guidelines and less government power, could only makes things worse, she said.

* * *

The problem started with worms. National Bait Inc. of Mississauga sells dew worms around the world,

It's been a good business for 40 years, said president Joseph Haupert, except for one problem.

"Canadians don't want to pick worms."

So National Bait Inc. got approval to hire 40 Mexicans under the federal pilot project.

Haupert said he had to put $100,000 up front for return airfare and work permits. He put the migrants up in the Maples Inn II in Guelph, where each one would pay $100 a month to share a basic but clean room with three others.

Crouched over a farmer's field, with a can of sawdust attached to one leg -- for keeping fingers dry -- and a can for worms attached to the other leg, a top picker can fill 20 to 30 cans of about 400 worms apiece in one 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift, Haupert said.

With an $8-an-hour salary and bonuses kicking in after 12 cans, a good worker could make from $2,000 to even $5,000 a month, he said. But the Mexicans were barely able to fill 10 cans a night.

Many started showing up at medical clinics with strained backs, scrapes and pulled muscles.

Things got worse. Their paycheques arrived much later than -- and much lower than --expected.

No one had explained to the Mexicans that Canadian companies hold back the first two weeks' pay. Or that taxes and insurance deductions reduce paycheques. Or that they didn't get paid for sick days.

So much for all the money to send back home. They barely had enough for groceries.

Alerted of the problems, the Mexican consulate in Toronto set up a meeting between Haupert and the workers.

The consulate could do little except promise Haupert he'd get experienced farm workers next time and tell the migrants they should go home if they wanted.

Unsatisfied, about two dozen workers signed a "statement of solidarity" on June 11. They complained of poor working conditions, such as no access to latrine and limited drinking water. They asked for help from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and support from the public to get a new employer, and back pay for sick days.

Haupert rejected the migrants' concerns as "nonsense," calling them "lowlifes."

Those with real medical problems, not simply aching muscles, were getting the help they needed. And the Mexicans were working under the same conditions as other employees, who worked harder and complained less, Haupert added.

No one gets paid if they don't show up, he said.

"Otherwise, I'd be broke."

* * *

Haupert began sending home migrants, those who gave up and those he labelled "troublemakers."

By June 18, the number of migrants left in Guelph had dropped to 20, but things seemed to have settled down.

Munoz, Aleman and Jaquez sat outside the Maples Inn that day and chatted about their struggle.

Her nine-year-old son got on the phone a few days ago, Aleman said.

"Look, mom," he said. "It doesn't matter if we have a house. I just want you with us."

Aleman didn't give in. Worm picking wasn't going to make her rich, but it was better than starving in Mexico.

"Many of us are just thinking we want to go home," she said. "Then we get strong and want to keep going."

None of the women had great expectations about what worm picking would do for them.

"We have to be realistic and know we will never be able to advance to where other people are," Munoz said.

As they chatted, a call came in from National Bait. Haupert had fingered Aleman and Munoz as ringleaders. He ordered them home the next day.

"They are bringing in the drug trade," he told The Free Press over the phone that day. "One of the women is a hooker."

The stunned women spent the rest of that day wrestling with the idea of simply ignoring Haupert and staying in Canada. UFCW national co-ordinator Stan Raper tried to help. He learned the women could transfer to a new employer, if they found one, but the process could take eight weeks.

"We might get stuck and not be able to get a job because we have been outspoken," Aleman worried.

In the midst of the worry, they found humour in the allegations of prostitution.

"Maybe we could make more money," Munoz joked.

* * *

Sgt. Ron Lord of Guelph police checked occurrence calls from the Maples Inn for April 1 to June 22.

There were no calls for anything to with drugs or prostitution, Lord said.

The owner of the Maples, Walter Probst, had nothing but praise for the migrants.

"They are very nice people, very polite. We have had no problems."

* * *

On June 19, instead of boarding a bus to Toronto airport, Aleman and Munoz slipped away and were taken into hiding by the UFCW. A third woman, who will not talk to the media, was taken into hiding a day later.

Jaquez remained behind, still struggling to make her 12 cans a night.

A few days ago, the UFCW allowed The Free Press an exclusive interview with Munoz and Aleman.

The two women seemed quieter than usual, not as quick to joke or laugh.

It may be difficult for Canadians to understand why the women are so afraid they want to hide, said one UFCW representative.

"Over there in Mexico, you can't play around. You can disappear completely."

At the least, the women fear they and their families will be blacklisted by Mexican employers who hear of the problems.

"We don't know what is going to happen," Munoz said.

Her young children still think she's working and making money, Aleman said.

"It just makes things worse if the whole family knows."

This is not where they wanted to end up -- sharing a room that is big enough only for three single air mattresses and relying on charity to survive.

"I feel a little trapped," Aleman said. "We came here to work."

The women have volunteered to work for the UFCW, but those jobs don't pay. The union is having little luck finding a new employer.

"These are good people, hard working people," Raper said.

As for Haupert, he has given the women's names to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

"I'm not going to try and get them back."

There's nothing Immigration Canada can do, said spokesperson Jean-Pierre Morin.

Until the women's work permits expire in October, they are in Canada legally, he said.

* * *

No one knows what will happen. Raper has promised to raise money for the flight home, if necessary.

The women aren't worried about that. Their families will help if needed, they said.

"Here, money is everything. In Mexico, family is important," Munoz said.

If she and Aleman give up, National Bait will think it can treat all workers this way, Munoz said. "This is the right thing to do. I was raised to be independent, to fight."

Munoz and Aleman usually speak through an interpreter. But after the interview, Munoz offered a wry smile and one last comment in English.

"We hope."


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