‘Canada the Good’ myth exposed: Migrant workers resist debt-bondage

A still from the documentary Migrant Dreams which streams this month on Al Jazeera’s Witness. Shasha Nakhai

‘Canada the Good’ myth exposed: Migrant workers resist debt-bondage

Here in Canada, some like to think of the country as “tolerant of diversity,” a champion of human rights and a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard and play by the rules, which are presumed equal and fair. This is the myth of Canada the Good, one that still prevails despite repeated truths to the contrary.

The reality of Canada’s unfair labour system enters the world stage with the international broadcast of Migrant Dreams on Al Jazeera’s Witness which will, throughout the month of May, stream the documentary for free.

Canada maintains its pristine international reputation partly by silencing the people who live the lie. Migrant Dreams asks questions about what Canadian values really look like — by highlighting the voices of those who have long been ignored, marginalized or erased.

At the centre of the documentary are migrant workers in farms across Canada. The film opens a conversation about the relationship between labour, gender, sexuality, race, class and settlement — otherwise known as immigration to Canada.

I use the word settlement to draw our attention to the colonial history and ongoing colonial reality of the Canadian state. This is Indigenous land, much of it remains unceded and stolen. Immigration has become the coded word for settlement — a tactic to erase settler tracks in colonial structures.

Shut up or get out

In the film, women workers from Indonesia battle an exploitative recruiter who extorts them for money under the threat of deportation if they don’t pay up. Other workers from Jamaica, Mexico and Tunisia struggle with crowded substandard housing, exposures to pesticides and other unsafe conditions. Workers in Canada’s migrant program are told to pay up, shut up or get out.

Today, there are more than 500,000 migrant workers working with temporary status in Canada. They come from more than 80 different source countries. Of that number, 110,000 are low-wage. Low-wage migrant workers are paid minimum wage but are tied to one job and one employer.

A trailer for Migrant Dreams.

My documentary is shot in Leamington, Ont. Greenhouses larger than 10 football fields span the land, growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers — mostly headed for the United States. The sector employs 13,000 workers, and in 2015 reached a value of $800 million.

The contemporary version of Canada’s migrant labour farm program began in 1966 when 264 Jamaican men came to work in Ontario. The federal government runs a range of migrant labour programs, which now fall under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Participants work on farms or as nannies, cleaners or cashiers in fast-food outlets. Most of this low-wage work is dirty, difficult and dangerous.

‘Unfree’ labour

The government likes to present these programs as temporary, but there is nothing temporary about this program.

The job shortage is Canada is chronic and this program provides permanent access for corporations to “unfree” labour.

The citizen boss wields an exorbitant amount of power. This system invites abuse — of which there are many stories: Unpaid wages, limited access to timely health care, unsafe working conditions, overcrowded accommodations, abusive working conditions, questionable payroll deductions and non-payment of accrued overtime.


Read more: Migrant farm workers vulnerable to sexual violence


A particularly shocking dimension of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is that of recruitment fees. Many of the workers in Canada have paid recruiters substantial agency fees, ranging from $6,000 to $12,000, to work in the program.

Because the fees are so high, some arrive heavily indebted to the broker who brought them to the country. This is a form of modern debt bondage and it’s a story that is being played out across the world — in Hong Kong, Seoul and Doha.

They pick our fruit, wash our floors

The problems the workers encounter are systemic, they are not the result of “one bad apple.” The government program legislates inequality — this is an active choice the government is making. There is no denial that abuse takes place under its watch.

As the writer and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh Ha noted, there is a “Third World in every First World.” Migrant workers inhabit Canada’s Third World, one that is conveniently unseen by Canadians. But the relationship is intimate.

They pick our fruit, wash our floors and wipe our babies’ noses. Migrant workers subsidize the lifestyles of Canadian households. And the relationship is historical as much as it is contemporary.

A Mexican migrant worker trims the vines of a vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, March 2010. (Shutterstock)

This is the same balance of power that lines the boots of Canada’s colonial footprint. Migrant workers come from the Global South, they are racialized, many are Indigenous and they are poor.

The workers come from regions that have been underdeveloped by global capital and dominated by foreign ownership of resources, factories and land.

Mail-order servants

Canada’s corporate imperialism is actively impoverishing communities and monopolizing control of resources and production. Canadian mining companies in Central and South America, Canadian manufacturers in South East Asia and Canadian banks in the Caribbean control resources. They flow their profits back to Canada.

This political and economic context sets the preconditions for the movement of non-citizens to work as migrants in Canada.

Temporary migrant labour programs have expanded exponentially over the years, and they have effectively replaced immigration pathways into Canada. In 2008, the number of temporary residents entering Canada exceeded the number of permanent residents for the first time.

The contemporary versions in practice today are extensions of historic labour schemes developed by the Canadian state to designate the “preferred citizen” according to race. It is imperative to remember how deeply entrenched labour and immigration programs were, and continue to be, in developing Canada as a white nation.

In 1872, Canada passed the Dominions Land Act to give 160 acres of free land to homesteaders of European stock. Less than 10 years later, in 1885, Canada introduced the Chinese Immigration Act to dissuade Chinese from entering, and charged a $50 head tax. Conveniently, this was introduced only after Chinese workers built the national railways.

In the 1900s, nannies from Western Europe were invited to settle in what is current-day Canada. They were offered paid travel and gifted status on arrival. In the same time period, migrant women from the Caribbean were required to be bonded on two-year contracts, earned less than half the salary of their white counterparts and were labelled “temporary.” They were not part of the nation-building dream.

Exposing Canada’s myth

These programs normalize the racism of citizenship as a form of supremacist nation building. I have met farm workers who have worked in the program for 25 years, who can never expect citizenship.

That Migrant Dreams was ever produced is a testament to the courage of workers. Speaking out means job loss, possibly deportation. Migrant workers are continually told they are disposable and replaceable.

If one worker rejects the gruel Canada offers them, there is a lineup of hundreds waiting behind to take their place. They have seen workers injured on the job and sent back home without proper medical treatment, workers berated and penalized for not working fast enough, workers fired for speaking out about unsafe working conditions.

The workers who appear in my films trust me, they trust the activists who vetted me and believe in the power of film to inform, engage and mobilize.

Despite the climate of total control, workers resist because they understand justice. Canada’s reputation internationally as a bastion of human rights needs to be earned, not mythologized.