Gabriela Garcia Torres came to central Alberta from Mexico in the early spring of 2015 to work on a mushroom farm. She was one of approximately 2500 foreign agricultural workers who were temporarily employed in Alberta that year.
Her eight-month work permit was issued under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). The SAWP program began in 1966 and presently allows citizens from Mexico and the Caribbean to work in Canada for up to 8 months growing, raising, or harvesting crops and livestock. In 2015, 41,702 workers were authorized to come to Canada under SAWP permits.
“I am a single mother. I have come to Canada to earn money to pay for their schooling and food. This is my third year coming to Canada, but my first on a mushroom farm.” Gabriela previously worked in an orchard in British Columbia’s Okanagan valley.
“It is hard work. The buildings are hot and humid and crowded. There are shelves and shelves of mushrooms that have to be picked quickly and carefully. It is hard on my back and arms. We work long hours—12 hours many days. But I came here to earn money so the long hours are okay.” The mushroom farm also has a composting facility for creating the substratum that the mushrooms grow in. Sometimes, Gabriela is assigned to work in the compost barn. The composting process creates a variety of gases, such as ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulphide.
Asphyxiation is a common hazard on mushroom farm. In 2008, an immigrant worker at a BC mushroom farm passed out after entering a pumping shed that had filled with hazardous gas. His co-workers also succumbed to the lack of oxygen when they tried to rescue him. In the end, three workers died and two more suffered brain injuries due to the hazardous atmosphere.
Unsafe Work and the Risk of Deportation
The SAWP program allows employers to both request specific workers year after year and also send workers home early. Workers who are injured on the job, for example, are often “repatriated” immediately after being released from the hospital, even if they still require additional medical treatment. Employers can also give workers a negative evaluation, which can mean the worker is refused future placements.
Gabriela laughs at the suggestion that she could contact the government’s occupational health and safety inspectors for help. “I do not wish to go home early. My kids, they need the money I earn. Foreign workers do not have the same rights as Canadians. They say we do. But we know we do not. If we complain, we go home, and we get blacklisted.”
Sexual and Reproductive Freedom
Gabriela also has more pressing concerns. Gabriela and the other women on the mushroom farm have limited access to contraception or medical services. The mushroom farm is approximately 35 km from the nearest town and they are driven by the farmer to town on Saturday to shop, socialize, and attend Saturday evening mass.
“If I want to see a doctor to get pills, I have to get the employer to drive me during the week and he will ask me why. If I buy condoms in the drug store, one of his neighbours will see and tell him. And then what do I say to him? ‘I want to have sex with men?’ He will drive me right to the airport. He says we cannot have male visitors at the farm—maybe it is his religion or something. I cannot even get off the farm to see my boyfriend except at church.” “It is ridiculous. We have to sneak around like teenagers. Someone’s boyfriend sneaks into the house we live in and the rest of us have to turn the television up or go visit the other house? Canadians can have birth control and have sex with whomever they wish. But I am treated like a cow and kept away from the bull.”
Access to Health Care
Gabriela is also concerned about accessing pre-natal care. “So I have to make up an excuse to go see the doctor to see if the baby is okay. And I have to pay out of pocket for that—which I cannot really afford—and wait for the insurance company to send me money. “And if I do see a doctor, then what? If I am pregnant, the farmer will send me home. I want an abortion—I already have two children and I don’t want anymore—but how do I pay for that? “If I do it locally, he will find me out and I will be sent home as a whore and get blacklisted. The internet says I am too far along for the abortion pill. If my boyfriend drives me to Edmonton or Calgary to get an operation, how do I get time off? There is no solution.”
In the meantime, Gabriela continues to live and work on the farm. She shares a house with five other workers. “It is not as nice as the place we had in BC. There is some mold in the ceiling and the bathroom is gross. But the farmer is nicer. This farmer never stares at us or tries to kiss us. That is why I changed farms this year.”