“Why do migrant workers leave home?” Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for South America and Mexico addressed this question at the Niagara United Mennonite Church on July 12. The question is particularly relevant for Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), Ontario residents in understanding why foreign migrant farm workers spend anywhere from a 6 weeks to 8 months in the community.
Klassen began the evening by identifying that economic migration is not a new phenomenon. Most Canadians, or their ancestors, migrated here and likely came for the same reasons that thousands of foreign workers vie for a “ticket” to be part of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
With Klassen’s work including Mexico she spoke about some of the challenges faced by Mexican families deciding to have one member come to Canada for the season. She identified common issues that “push” families to consider leaving their home communities as being poverty, violence, and political turmoil. The issues that “pull” people to a different country are economic disparity and employment opportunities.
While NOTL welcomes and appreciates migrant workers, Klassen widened the topic of migration to the global perspective. “Currently more than 220 million people worldwide are living outside the country where they were born.” She added that countries all over the world experience migration of workers, who from poorer countries seek employment opportunities in wealthier countries.
Lending reality to Klassen’s presentation were three workers from Mexico who attended the session. With Klassen as a translator dialogue ensued as to reasons for coming to Canada temporarily, and what the workers find unusual about Canadian society. Key issues in Mexico for the workers coming here are unemployment and poverty. With some humour the workers described how Canadians value privacy and space, especially when it comes to “greeting” others. In Mexico, as with many other countries work or other activities are often delayed as friends and strangers take time to hear the latest news from one another. Klassen explained that in other countries more time is devoted to building relationships than to what we are accustomed. The challenge they find working on farms here is that most employers are anxious to get to work, which in other countries would communicate an insult.
Focusing on relationships between farm employers, farm workers and the Niagara community is what Rachel Pellett-Gillette has been assigned to do by MCC for the season. Pellett-Gillette has been coordinating volunteers and relating to employers and workers to help cross various barriers and help build a sense of community for those who have temporarily left their families and communities. Those interested to learn more about farm workers or farming issues can contact Pellett-Gillette at the MCC office, 595 Carlton Street, St. Catharines or call her at 905-646-3161 ext 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Klaassen is a freelance writer and an Associate Pastor at St. Catharines United Mennonite Church.