Some of the 70 workers dismissed last week by a Canadian-owned mushroom-farming company spoke out yesterday about what it was like to be fired without notice, two weeks before Christmas.
"It's pretty harsh. We have families in our countries," said Carlos, a worker from Guadalajara hired by Rol-Land Farms as a Spanish translator.
Carlos - the workers asked that their last names not be used - said his bosses called on his day off to say his employment had been terminated, and that in two days a bus would take him to the airport so he could return to Mexico.
It felt like a deportation, said Gorge, also from Guadalajara. "They didn't give us time to think, to choose. They just said, you have to leave the apartment, because they provide the apartment." He and three other men each paid the company $320 a month to stay in the small two-bedroom suite, he said.
Both men said they plan to stay in Canada and look for other jobs, but union officials said many of their co-workers had returned to their home countries before anyone could tell them their two-year work visas allowed them to stay.
Rol-Land Farms, a multimillion-dollar company based in Blenheim, Ont., 100 kilometres southwest of London, is owned by the Vander Pol family. They declined comment yesterday.
Given the current economic situation, it shouldn't be surprising the workers were let go, said Mark Wales, who deals with labour issues for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
"Every day, there are thousands of people losing their jobs all around the world," he said. "Why would a farm in Ontario be any different?"
In the past, the company has been accused of firing workers who tried to unionize. At the news conference held yesterday by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Carlos and Gorge said none of the Mexicans, Jamaicans or Guatemalans fired last week had been trying to join the union.
It is illegal for agricultural workers in Ontario to unionize, but a decision last month by the Ontario Court of Appeal gave the province 12 months to rewrite the Agricultural Employees Protection Act to allow collective bargaining.
What happened to the Rol-Land farm workers exemplifies everything that's wrong with Ottawa's temporary foreign worker program, according to Dr. Jenna Hennebry, who heads the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University.
"There's a great fear of replacement, of reprimand, of forced repatriation, a loss of pay, a loss of deposits to unregulated recruitment agencies, in particular cases. There's also problems in some cases of immediate eviction, as we've seen in this case."
The program is jointly managed by several agencies in both the federal and provincial governments. That's part of the problem, said Derry McKeever, an advocate with Friends of Farmworkers, a Chatham community activist group. He said migrant workers in Chatham live in houses without proper heat, water or electricity.
"Yesterday, we received a letter from the Minister of Labour saying that it's not a provincial responsibility. The municipality says it's not a municipal responsibility. The federal government says it's not a federal responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to take care of workers like this?" he asked.
Jason Bouzanis, a spokesman for Human Resources and Social Development Canada, said in an e-mail that foreign workers should report any abuse to provincial authorities, because they are supposed to have the same labour rights as Canadians.