Working, Not Working
Locating Injury Among Canada’s Migrant Workers
I promised myself I wouldn’t make this essay an entrepreneurial exegesis about writing and failure, but hear me out. I’m a writer who tends to write about literature, art, culture, blackness, gender, and the ruses of that thing we call Canada. I never considered myself a capital-J Journalist (cold objectivity kills people and lies about it later) but I do sometimes interview people. Last year, I interviewed Andrew, a Jamaican-born migrant worker who had worked on farms in Canada for many years. Focusing on the role of health care and migrant labor in Southern Ontario, I wrote more drafts than I have dreams. But everything felt like soundbites. I was listening to the noise where migrant labor is a problem to be fixed, a problem with appropriate answers in policy, crystallizing as a common liberal desire to fix the state of things via a packaged panacea. I left the draft behind for a long while but I couldn’t shake the story. It wasn’t Andrew exactly who had me caught up (or even what we might have represented), it was the undetected terror, the way mundane forms of violence are illegible, and unreportable. We know damn well that atrocities happen every day, but we don’t know it because we see it. I recalled my favorite line in Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion:” “We cannot draw close the net in which we stand.” And me, I knew I stood for something but I couldn’t respond with more policy-driven language. We are too far gone. Although this published version still doesn’t feel quite right, that’s okay, I think. What you’re about to read is somewhat of a defeat. It’s a defeat in the sense that I refused to produce solutions on the problem I was investigating, the so-called problem of migrant labor in Canada. I am tired of feigning to resolve the heavy-duty issues. Instead, I tried to unearth the entanglements, the mess of things, the imbricated social life and social death that is all around us.
1. Before I called Andrew, a Jamaican migrant worker who spent seasons farming in Canada, I didn’t know the extent of his injuries, even the ones he had gotten on the job. What I knew was mostly the political landscape in which he and people like him sit: a place where “right” and “not right” are curious bedfellows, a place of racialized labor frequently euphemized as “controversial” by the media. It takes a worker to be dramatized as disposable, often after an injury, for political and social issues to take shape for a polite citizenry.
In the past few years, there have been numerous reports relating to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada’s national newspapers. The issues range but are often singular: physical injuries, racist comments, a DNA sweep based on skin color, the Employment Minister’s ban of foreign workers in the restaurant industry, unemployment rates, insurance and health care benefits expiring after a serious car accident in an employer’s vehicle, filed rights-based complaints, and a recent, rare landmark human rights ruling. On April 1, 2015 the Stephen Harper administration saw its 2011 rule, “4-in-4-out,” come to fruition, meaning many temporary foreign workers will be kicked out, not able to return to Canada before four years.
By now, should any of this be surprising? There are countless naked facts.
Sponsored by the Jamaican and Canadian governments through a bilateral agreement dating back to the dawn of productive accumulation in the 1960s, Andrew worked as a seasonal farm worker in Ontario for more than 13 years before a routine job tightening cables ended with an accident that resulted in a shattered cheekbone and broken nose. He is one of many migrant workers who get injured while working in Canada and then are sent back to their “home country,” sometimes unable to formally work.
On the phone, Andrew speaks to me with a patois lilt. He sounds open and matter-of-fact, making obvious the electric tension between the cellphone’s static. His resolute voice reminds me of my own Jamaican father’s and the way I used to cry listening to Wyclef Jean’s “Gone ‘til November” on loop. Unlike my dad’s, Andrew’s answers come easy, in part I imagine because of the assistance he’s gotten understanding complex opportunities for legal recourse and possible claims to entitlement from a non-profit community legal clinic. After I had difficulty finding a migrant worker willing to talk (workers who speak out against their employers face unimaginable repercussions), I found my usually-dangerously-interview-shy self grateful for the conversation.
2. Andrew is not his real name.