Film screening at New Hamburg farm to spur discussion about foreign workers

Film on the Farm is being held at Pfenning's Organic Farm Thursday night and will feature farm tours with Jamaican workers as well as a documentary, El Contrato, which follows the stories of migrant workers from Mexico.

Farm tours will be held with Jamaican workers so people can 'understand their perspective'

Workers at Pfenning's Organic Farm transplant crops into the fields back in April in this photo tweeted by the farm. (Pfenning's Organic Farm Twitter)

Farm tours and a film shown on the side of a barn might sound like a lovely way to spend a summer evening, but an event on Thursday night at Pfenning's Organic Farm near New Hamburg will also have a political feel.

Jenn Pfenning said she hopes Film on the Farm will introduce local residents to problems with the temporary foreign workers program.

"It touches us pretty close to home because 21 of our workers come from Jamaica and we are pretty close with them, we visit their families when we go down to Jamaica for holidays and they're part of the family," Pfenning said.

Program improvements needed

The idea for the event came to the Pfennings after the death of Sheldon McKenzie. The 39-year-old father of two had been working on a tomato farm in Leamington, Ont., in January 2015 when he hit his head and was in a coma. While in a coma, his family says the federal government tried to fly him back to Jamaica without providing the medical care he needed. McKenzie died Sept. 17, 2015.

Politically, within the system, they're concerned that if they make noise, they might not get cleared to travel next season.- Jenn Pfenning, farmer

The story touched the Pfennings, who have pressed to the federal government to changes to the foreign workers program, including allowing workers to have open permits so they can work for any employer.

"We want to see improvements made to the program," Pfenning said.

She is hoping the Film on the Farm event will inform people about the issues and encourage them to have a discussion and speak out, because often the workers don't think they can.

"Politically, within the system, they're concerned that if they make noise, they might not get cleared to travel next season," she said.

Migrant workers needed

Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht will be at Thursday's event and said the Pfenning business is an important one in the community.

"I believe that the way they have treated their temporary foreign workers is exemplary and want more of my constituents to hear their story," Albrecht said in an email.

"I recognize the necessity for [temporary foreign workers], as some farmers face worker shortages and we value their hard work and contribution to the health and well-being of Canadians," he added.

The documentary El Contrato will be shown at the Film on the Farm event. (El Contrato)

"While Canadians must be first in line for available jobs ... the temporary foreign worker program should provide temporary help where clear and acute labour shortages exist and Canadians are not available. The agricultural sector is one where such an acute labour shortage can quickly wipe out the benefits of an excellent crop grown, if farmers are unable to harvest it on time."

Ask questions during wagon tour

Film on the Farm takes place Thursday night. Food will be available for purchase from a few vendors starting at 6 p.m. Proceeds from food sales will to go support the group Justice for Migrant Workers.

There will be field tours with Jamaican workers starting at 6:30 p.m.

"The point of having our guys do the field tours specifically without [us] on the wagons with them is to give people an opportunity to speak to them without a boss present," Pfenning said, adding she wants people to freely engage with the men, ask questions "and understand their perspective without an employer's filter put on it."

A panel discussion and question and answer session will get underway at 8 p.m., and then the film El Contrato (The Contract) will be shown at 9 p.m.

The documentary follows a father from Mexico, along with several other workers from that country, as they make their annual trip to southern Ontario to pick tomatoes for eight months. The film raises the issue of low pay and terrible conditions and the desire by workers to be treated with dignity and respect.

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