Hugo, Paco & Luis are Mexican farmers. They came to Canada as part of its Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Their employer is an old Italian with a small farm a couple of hours away from Toronto. While I could describe in detail the painful story of their season as foreign workers, I’ll keep it simple: they wish they had never ended up in this farm; they can’t afford to go back home without the much needed money; they don’t know the language therefore they can’t complain to other people; they will likely come back next year, praying to the Virgin Mary that next time they end up in a better place.
For a really good insiders look at what these workers have to endure, the Canadian documentary “El Contrato” (the contract) offers what is probably the best perspective.
Canada’s SAWP is one of the best efforts I know to implement this type of multi-lateral agreement, with over 30 years from its inception. One of Canada’s independent research organizations, The North-South Institute, has even published research on how this program should be considered a model of best practices in matters related to migrant workers.
Even Mexican President Vicente Fox is urging Canada to accept more temporary workers. This should be no surprise considering that remittances from Mexicans abroad amounted to 1.5 billion dollars just in January of this year (link in spanish). This is already roughly half the income for crude oil exportation.
And yet, for many guest workers their routine will include long work hours, substandard living conditions, isolation, limited mobility, a lonely long walk to a public phone booth to call home on Friday evenings and the persistent dream of being able to endure the conditions to send enough money home so their children don’t have to do the same.
In “Legalizing Human Trafficking” Basav Sen writes about the current state of negotiations at the WTO:
The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), now being negotiated in the World Trade Organization (WTO), is likely to reduce migrant workers to the status of commodities. “Mode 4″ of GATS deals with “movement of natural persons,” i.e., the migration of people to foreign countries as workers.
Throughout history there have been two types of migrants:
- Explorers: those who will leave their land behind, take their family and initiate a one-way trip to some place where their future generations stand a better chance. They establish the foundation for a foreign culture to blossom outside of its usual boundaries.
- Itinerants: those who have heard of better conditions elsewhere but are reluctant to abandon their home land and do seasonal trips to take advantage of potential opportunities, becoming in the process important agents of cultural exchange between their two homes. They transfer wealth, goods and culture across borders. This is why we have such a rich and complex global culture today.
The WTO is now looking at adding a third type: Transactionals, that is those who are hired to fulfill a specific job and will be discarded (returned home) when the job is done, limiting any influence they may have in life beyond the scope of the business transaction itself, rendering them invisible to society. They will come, do the job and leave no tracks. The engine that has shaped global culture will soon stop moving. The agents of culture transfer will be no more.