The Invisible Group

Working Notes on International Seasonal Farm Workers

For the past two years, the focus of my research and my practice revolves around the international seasonal workers and their living situations on Canadian farms. I am interested in the living conditions of the workers, their repeated heavy and dull labour work, as well as the oppression, memories, sentiments, and homesicknesses they are experiencing during their extended labouring status in a foreign country.

There are countless farming seasonal workers from countries such as Mexico, Nicaragua and Jamaica in both the eastern and the western regions of Canada. This year, the population of seasonal workers has reached three hundred thousand people. The globalization current has brought a specific working environment and condition for this group of workers. They had to endure their lives within this system in order to fulfill the extensive need for this profession. To this day, the population of international seasonal workers in Canada is still rising.

JULY 12th

I have conducted interviews with many Mexican seasonal workers in the Fraser River area of British Columbia, and have thoroughly studied their living and working environments. This July, I came to the Niagara Falls district in Ontario to study and interview the Jamaican and Mexican workers in this area. I received generous help and reception from Stuart Reid, the director and curator of Rodman Hall Art Centre in Brock University. He helped me contact the farming seasonal worker support committee prior to my arrival, so I was able to start my work immediately after arriving. Stuart drove me to visit nearby farms. Across the relatively flat land, I saw an endless sea of orchards. When I walked closer to the orchards, what I saw were the figures of the foreign seasonal workers moving indistinctly between the trees. The contrast between these foreigners and this idyllic farm landscape was apparent. My first reaction was: why do the farms only hire seasonal foreign workers, what about locals? Afterwards, I learnt due to the regulations of the packaging and the sizing of fruits, farms were forced to increase their cost and labour in order to survive commercially, leading to the result of Canadian farming products facing greater threat from the US farm products due to the contrast of prices. Many locals decided to leave the farms and move to the cities for work and residence. In order to maintain the manufacturing scale of the farms, farm owners had to hire foreign seasonal workers to meet the labour demand.

The first people I met were three workers on bicycles. They were on the side of the road watching what was happening on the other side: a Caucasian man teaching another worker how to operate a harvester. Plastic bags full of groceries hung on the bicycle bars; they have just come back from the nearby convenience store. We stopped our car and approached them to chat. They could communicate with us through basic English. From our conversation, I learned that they were seasonal farm workers from Mexico, and they come every year to work on the farm for eight months. Every year they have to apply for a new working visa in order to return here. They told me that all the people who walk or ride bicycles like them are farming seasonal workers.

We arrived at another orchard which specializes in farming apricots. I saw the workers appearing and then disappearing through the gaps of the tree trunks, yet I was unable to see their faces clearly. This image was just like their situation. They are people ignored by local communities. They are a group of people who are constantly overlooked.

I got out of the car and walked into the apricot trees, and I saw that each worker wore long sleeved clothing and long pants to avoid stings and bites from insects. Even on their head they wore hats that only showed parts of their faces. The workers held a long pole, hitting the small green apricots that grew on the tree branches. I was surprised that they were hitting the perfectly fine fruit, letting them fall to the ground and go to waste. I asked one of the Jamaican workers, and he told me that if a tree bears too many fruits, the nutrients would be too dispersed, and the quality of the fruits in total would decrease. In order to guarantee the firmness of the fruit, excess fruits had to be cut down.

We went to another farm where the apricots have ripened, and the workers were on a break eating their own packed lunches. Some workers were talking over the phone. I asked them whom they were talking to, and they told me they were talking to their family. Because there is no internet, the only way they can communicate with their family is to use their cellphone with an international phone card.

JULY 13th

Stuart accompanied me to the annual Niagara Farmer’s Market. The farmer’s market was a large event, where all the farmers from the area could come and sell their produce, such as vegetables, fruits, salted meat, and bread. It’s events like the farmer’s markets that exemplifies the passion and dedication the community has for their farm produce and their fruits of labour. Also, events like this show the relationships between the farm owners, workers, and the entire community.

We were planning to meet with a farm owner at the market, unfortunately he never showed up. We asked a few people, and they led us to the owner’s wife and daughter who were selling fruits in front of their booth. His wife told us that her husband was unable to come for other reasons, and invited us to go find him at the farm the next few days. Later on, I found out there will be a big picnic party the next day at the market where three thousand people will show up with the best homemade cuisine to share with the entire community. I wanted to go, but I already made plans to visit the farms the next day.

After leaving the market, Stuart took me to see Jane Andres, who runs a bed and breakfast, and is also the organizer of the community farming seasonal worker support committee. Jane is well known in the Niagara Falls region, and the workers all referred to her as the “godmother”. She has been helping the seasonal workers for over a decade now, and has been to Jamaica numerous times to visit the families of the seasonal workers. Jane’s husband Robert is a locally well-known musician. He has his own band and performs occasionally in the nearby communities. Many Jamaican workers have participated in his shows. Jane introduced me to the history of the farming seasonal workers in her region. Most of these workers come from Jamaica, some have been working here for over thirty years. Jane knows hundreds of workers working at the nearby farms, and became friends with many of them. While we were talking, there were workers coming in to visit her.

Jane told me that the region used to be a battlefield two centuries ago, and then it became a wood processing factory. Afterwards, they began to plant fruit trees, and the region soon became one of the most prestigious orchards in Ontario that specialized in producing apricots and peaches. However, in the past decade, the farms began to chop down the fruit trees and burn the wood. They wanted to turn the orchards into vineyards.

A local farm owner started to make investments into the managing of hotels and inns in the Niagara Falls region with an investor he gained contact with through his arranged marriage to an immigrant from Hong Kong. His farm has expanded rapidly, and became one of the largest farms in the region. He was also the first farm owner who began to take out his orchards to grow grapes. His actions represents the trend of agricultural development, but the locals have strong opinions about this transition. If the trend continues, it will not be long before the vineyard is destroyed in order to plant other species. Such frequent conversions could damage the ecology of the regions seriously. Because Stuart has a busy schedule, we only stayed for a little while. I made arrangements with Jane that I would come to visit her the next day, and she would take me to visit the farm.

Stuart had to go home in the afternoon, and he invited me to his house. Stuart lives three hours away from St. Catherine. I had to thank him but decline his invitation as I had to continue my research according to my schedule. He was very glad he could accompany me to the farms, and said he finally had a chance to learn more about the community thoroughly. If it weren’t for my research, he might not have the opportunity for such an experience. Stuart drove me to a car rental company in St. Catherine and helped me rent a small vehicle, this way I could travel to places by myself.

JULY 14th

I woke up early and drove to Jane’s house. She took me to nearby farms to see the process of how the region changed from a forest into orchards, and finally into vineyards. Standing in the middle of everything, the impact of the consumerist culture on agricultural and environmental change is huge. The preferences of the consumers decide the production of the farms. I followed Jane to a cemetery enclosed by stone, and she told me that this cemetery was the oldest recorded in the history of this region.

The cemetery had witnessed all the changes of the region over the past two centuries.

Later, we went to visit a farm owner’s place. The farm owner was an immigrant from Switzerland, and has lived in Canada for forty years. I asked him why he moved here, and he told me that he was young, and was ambitious in doing great business. He was overwhelmed when he saw this giant farm, and decided to come here. The farm owner has a younger brother who is a Swiss photographer, so he was very excited to meet with me. I told him that I am planning to take some photographs of the farm and interview the workers, he accepted my proposition generously. His attitude was surprising to me. When I was in British Columbia, I have experienced great difficulties with the farm owners. They were indifferent and refused to let me set foot onto their farm. In contrast, this farm owner’s passion and openness truly impressed me. He then told me that the workers will start work at six in the morning, and advised me to come in the morning to do my shoot and interview since it would be too hot in the afternoon. I thanked him for his concerns, as well as his generosity for letting me come back.

I told Jane I wanted to photograph the living environments of the workers, so she took me to where the seasonal workers lived — two houses located on a farmland, housing twenty Jamaican workers in total. Jane reminded me to not take photographs right away, and that I should let them get to know me first before asking them for permission, otherwise I might cause unnecessary misunderstandings. I started having conversations with some of the Jamaican workers. They were very curious about me, asking what I was doing there. I said I came here for an art project about seasonal workers, and it will be exhibited next year at Brock University. When I got to the part about their current situation and started asking them about their living status, a middle-aged man told me he had been working here, flying back and forth between Jamaica and Canada for 37 years now, working around eight months every year. He also told me that he would make large wooden crates every year and use them to ship necessities and food back to Jamaica. I was astonished, why would they ship food from Canada? He told me that the food in Canada is much cheaper than in Jamaica. Looking around, I finally understood the purposes of the separate wood panels lying scattered on the ground. Seeing these crates reminded me of the time when I was an educated youth during the Cultural Revolution in China. We would buy many farm products such as meat, chicken and eggs, and we would preserve them, put them in cardboard boxes or baskets, and take them back home. At that time, there was a shortage of supplies in the city, each person only gets a ration of 250 grams of pork and 250 grams of vegetable oil per month. Farm products were brought back as rarities, as treasures money couldn’t buy.

I asked him if I could take a look at his bedroom. He opened the door to a small room with two beds. The rest of the space was filled with cardboard boxes and scattered belongings. He told me those are all the things he has accumulated and prepared to ship back to Jamaica. On the wall was a calendar with a poster of a sexy young Jamaican girl wearing a bikini. His stuff has been scattered all over his bed and table; items like his cellphone and other daily necessities. What made me feel curious were the stuffed animals, cars, and other toys lying around. He told me those are meant for his grandson. Looking at the toys on his bed made me sympathize with his emotions of being a parent, an elder, and the idea of having to think for his family even when he is faraway from them. It warmed my heart. In the crowded temporary space where one could barely call a home, what shone through the children’s toys and everything else, was all the hardship they had to endure in order for their family to live an ordinary life back home.

During our years as educated youths during the Cultural Revolution, we had to face our emotional dilemmas similar to the circumstances the seasonal workers were facing. I remember because of my bad family background, my confusion and frustration toward my future in the countryside, I had no interest in having a girlfriend. I always felt fearful of my own incapability of feeding myself. How could I form a family, and let my child live with me in despair and hopelessness? My hair would rise up on the back of my neck every time I thought of this.

I asked for permission to photograph their bedroom and take their portraits, and they accepted gladly. When I opened myself up to communicate with them emotionally, they responded with the same openness and shared their stories and emotions with me.

Afterwards, Jane told me she has to take a Jamaican worker to the mobile clinic to get checked out. From what I know, seasonal workers did not have healthcare insurance, so how could they go see a doctor? The patient Jane is taking to the mobile clinic was suspected of having AIDS, he needed to be taken to the clinic for a final confirmation. The clinic was established in the what was the empty room of a community centre. As we walked into the clinic, I saw immediately a great number of Mexican and Jamaican seasonal workers waiting to be seen by a doctor. There were professors, doctors, medical school students and volunteers helping with registration, check-ups, and examinations. Jane told me the mobile clinic was finally established last year after years of hard work that the seasonal workers support group spent in order to help the workers gain the benefits they deserve. There was no healthcare support before. If a worker was injured before during work, he was unable to receive disability subsidies. Only until recently such insurances became available, yet it was still incredibly difficult to implement the insurances. She told me a story about a worker who injured his left hand when it was smashed by a machine while he was working. The insurance company refused to pay for his disability subsidies with the outrageously ridiculous excuse saying he was well capable of working with his other good hand! Sadly because of the complicated process, law suits like this goes on for too long to reach a verdict.

In the evening Jane planned to attend a bible study class at the church, and she asked me if I could drive a few workers to the church. These seasonal workers went to church regularly, they found it to be an opportunity to socialize with the locals. I promised her I would come along, although I am not a Christian, and have never attended a bible study class. But in order to learn more about the actual lives of the seasonal workers, I decided to participate in this event to fully experience every aspect of their lives.

Walking into the church, I saw roughly about twenty people in the bible study class, more than half of the people were farming seasonal workers. The priest informed us tonight’s study would be to understand Jesus Christ through five aspects. He showed us a video filmed by the theological seminary, and handed each one of us a bible after the showing of the video. Apparently, all the answers to our questions could be found within the holy bible. What followed was the reading of passages from the bible, concluding with a free discussion of our thoughts and ideas. This experience immediately reminded me of the indelible memories of the Cultural Revolution. During that period, China was a sea of redness, the whole country was shrouded under the atmosphere of a personal cult, just like a gigantic “church”. People would wake up in the morning and recite from memory of quotations from Chairman Mao. Their lives could be summarized into “early consultations and late reports”, singing red songs, and doing the dance of loyalty to the Party. All the questions they had in reality seemed answerable from the little red book of Mao’s quotations. When I just arrived in Canada, many people suggested to me to attend a Christian church. They told me it’s the place to make friends and learn English. I went once, but the procedures of the church reminded me inevitably of everything I had experienced during the Cultural Revolution, so I never went back again.

There were two Jamaican workers sitting at my table. Their understanding of Jesus all revolved around their relationship with their family, and how they could fully live their life in order to reflect the values of Jesus’s teachings. In the end, the priest prayed for all the seasonal workers. It was the season of harvest, he hoped all the farming seasonal workers could overcome the obstacles and hardships. He prayed they could return safely and happily to their family. While the priest was praying, I started to observe the expressions of workers. They were very devoted, praying with their eyes closed in good faith. I took photographs when they were praying, and prayed myself for them to be able to overcome any difficulty in the busy season, and hoped they could reunite with their family soon. The rituals of religion was a way for them to walk out of their sufferings and to gain spiritual satisfaction.

JULY 15th

I woke up at six in the morning and rushed out to the farm with an empty stomach. The farm owner took me to the orchards and introduced me to several Jamaican workers. In the orchard, I took many photographs of the activities of harvest. All of the fruit trees had orange, plump apricots. The branches of the trees were bent because of the weight of the fruit, and there were many ripened apricots on the ground as well. The Jamaican workers were picking these apricots in the orchard, putting the fruits in baskets, and lining up the baskets together under the trees for the trucks to come and take them away. The workers shuttled through the trees in the morning sunshine, their bodies evenly tanned by the bright sun. I was thinking what would be the best way to capture their imagery, and decided to photograph them from angles and compositions where their faces would be undetectable and concealed. They are group that was ignored by the community, only images that preserved their anonymity could fully present their living reality in such environments.

As the sun rose higher, I left the orchard, and saw a large field of roses. A group of Jamaican workers were destroyed the wild plants around the roses. Seeing them once again reminded me the years I spent working under the fierce sun in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. It felt strange that the memories could be brought to life once again in front of me. The workers worked in pairs, standing on either side of each rose bush, they were pulling out the wild plants together. They moved from plant to plant, until reaching the end of the plantation. I walked up to chat with them, asking if I could photograph them. They said yes immediately. These workers were different with the workers in the farms of British Columbia. In British Columbia, the workers were just like the farm owners, refusing to let me to take photographs of them. They were worried that they would lose their job if anyone found out. But these Jamaican workers accepted cheerfully, proving the eastern regions of Canada has greater openness than the western regions, and the relationship between farm owners and workers are more harmonious.

I took a walk in the field and returned to Jane’s at night. Jane introduced me to her assistant Rachel, who is currently a master’s student studying sociology. Rachel also worked for the church, delivering information brochures to nearby farms, so she was familiar with many workers on the farms. We have made arrangement to that she will take me to see other farms the next day. Jane asked me if I wanted to visit the disabled Jamaican worker she told me about a few days ago, and I said yes gladly, so we drove to his house. Similar to the other housings for workers, this one sheltered more than ten workers as well. I saw the disabled worker preparing lunch for the next day, beside him were many lunch bags lying on the table. He told me because of what happened to his hand, he could no longer carry heavy objects. The only work he could handle were logistics in the house, such as preparing the lunch bags for the workers to take to the field the next day, driving the workers to the farm, and whatever chores he was capable of doing. It was already ten o’clock at night when I left their house. The field was as dark and the only light was starlight, shining on the roof. There was a vehicle parked in front of the house for transporting the workers to the fields. Besides the faint light from the windows, everywhere else was completely dark. Who could truly understand the feelings of the seasonal workers, buried deep inside during the long, lonely nights?

I drove back to St. Catherine in darkness. Thinking back to the time I spent with the workers under the sun, it felt strange to me that I alone could return to the relative comfort of the Holiday Inn. I felt perhaps I would rather spend the night with the workers, to experience the entirety of their lives, as if returning to the times when I was an educated youth in the countryside.

JULY 16th

I saw a freshly picked basket of apricots in front of Jane’s car when I have arrived to her house once again in the morning. I told her about the basket of apricots, and she said these fruits are all gifts from passing workers. You just can’t doubt how much “godmother” Jane is appreciated by the seasonal workers. Jane’s assistant Rachel took me along the Niagara River to hand out brochures for the nearby seasonal workers. She told me each farm has different living conditions. Usually the housing would accommodate ten people, yet there were cases where fifty workers were crowded into one warehouse as well. She told me a way to identify these over-crowded seasonal worker houses. If you see a house with bicycles piled beside a tree, it must have seasonal workers living inside. I asked for the reason for that assumption, and she told me that all the locals and farm owners drove cars in this region. Only seasonal workers rode bicycles.

Afterwards, we went to visit the farm owner we missed at the market. The owner was working in front of an apricot selection machine in his warehouse, beside him were two female Mexican workers. Rachel introduced me to him, and he has agreed for me to take photographs on his property. This farm owner was very busy and never rested, so were the two Mexican workers. They were packaging the selected apricots into boxes. The farm owner told me all the apricots has to be over 2.5 inches to be qualified for sale in the market. This was a new rule set under the pressures from the US farming products. Because unqualified apricots couldn’t make it to the market, this regulation brought great loss to the local farms. Even he is considering the possibilities of turning the orchards into vineyards.

I drove to the Niagara Falls along the river. This is one of the most renowned natural wonders of the world. The entire site was filled with tourists, especially during the summer, which is the peak season for tourism. The water falls rapidly with rage, splashing water spray tens of meters high. I could almost see the farming seasonal workers working in the fields through the sunlight penetrating the water mist. Their conditions are just like the mist at the falls, evaporating under the sun. It was the rupture of the river that helped the waterfall gain its magnificence, yet people choose only to see the beauty of the falls. No one knows the pain of the broken river. For me, the seasonal workers are just like the broken river. The water rushes down their bodies, carrying their painful experience, their longing for their family, their loneliness, and the struggles they experience on this strange foreign land. Everything comes together and flows afar to a place unknown to all.

Gu Xiong
Summer, 2013