SIMCOE, Ont. — In a little office just off the main drag in this small southern Ontario town, a handful of Mexican workers sit around and drink coffee. They would rather be digging and grading strawberry plants, the jobs they were hired for, but the farmer who hired them has left the country without paying them the thousands of dollars they're owed.

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Migrant workers' sleeping quarters are spartan at best. ((Joan Leishman/CBC))

Ghesquiere Plant Farm's operations have been taken over by a financial company, and the workers have been told they will likely never see their money. Officials at the Mexican consulate are making arrangements to fly them home this week, even though their contracts don't end until next month.

So they spend their time at the United Food and Commercial Workers union's agricultural workers support centre. It's one of 10 centres run by the union across Canada, even though the Mexican workers in Simcoe can't unionize. The centres, with the help of volunteers, provide translation as well as assistance and advice to migrant farm workers.

Speaking through a translator, Julio — who didn't want his last name used — said he and the others are tired, upset and scared. They're each owed more than $1,000. They wait around with nothing to do, spending what little money they have on food and expenses. They want to go home.

"I'm feeling empty and tossed aside because there is nothing to do but wait to go home," Julio said. "I'm spending the little money I have. I just want to leave right now."

Many of the labourers have been coming to Canadian farms for decades, working under conditions Canadians won't accept. They toil at least 60 or 70 hours a week for minimum wage ($10.25 an hour in Ontario) and don't get the overtime pay guaranteed to most employees. But in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, those wages go a long way to support families and put children through school.

The workers are hired through special arrangements with their consulates, the federal government and individual Canadian farmers. Their flights to and from home are paid and they are given accommodation, but the workers are responsible for their other expenses, including their food.

Broken spirits

Out at the farm, a few kilometers away, workers from Trinidad and Barbados sleep or sit around in a sparse living area attached to a barn. A couple of rooms with blankets as doors serve as sleeping quarters. There's no radio, no television, no books. A single toilet in a laundry room and an old shower stall are shared by more than a dozen men.

"My spirit has been broken this year," said Francis Gibson, 46, from Barbados.

He worked for several months on an apple farm near Colbourne, Ont. He said his boss there was great and conditions were "paradise" compared to the Ghesquiere farm. Now he's out of work and owed two weeks' pay, which he never expects to see. 

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Migrant workers travel to Ontario for seasonal labour on farms, sending their money home or saving it to take back to their families. (Joan Leishman/CBC)

"I'm fed up of everything. I just want to go home," he said.

Another worker named Slim (he also doesn't want his last name used) wants to come back to a farm in Canada next year, but he said he's afraid if he speaks out he'll be blacklisted. He said it has happened to others in the past.

"I know Canada as a whole doesn't work like that," he said. "But most workers are afraid to come forward and speak out." 

Slim said he and others are frustrated and want some straight answers about the money they are owed.

"Some of us left our families since April and come over, and when you are here you have to provide for your family and some for yourself, too. How can you do that when you are out at least two weeks' pay and we work week to week?" he said. "The employer breached contract with us. We did not breach contract."

Poor legal protection

Unlike most other workers, migrant farm workers have little protection under Canadian labour laws. In Ontario, they are not allowed to organize or join unions.

Large farms are required to set up a worker committee that can take complaints to the employer. But there is nothing under the law that obligates the farmer to do anything more than read or listen to those complaints, according to Stan Raper, national co-ordinator of the Agricultural Workers Alliance, a division of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He calls the legislation "basically toothless" and a concession to large corporate farm owners. 

"The farm lobby is incredibly well organized and has one of the best political machines ever, and they have the ear of the politicians," Raper said, adding that migrant farm workers don't have a vote and can't organize in Canada.

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CBC Reporter Maureen Brosnahan interviews a migrant worker. (Joan Leishman/CBC)

Last week, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, ruled that Ontario's ban on farm unions violates basic human rights. The ruling follows a complaint filed by the UFCW last year against the Ontario government and its Agricultural Employees Act.

"Ontario must end its blatant abuse of the rights of workers who grow and harvest our food," said Wayne Hanley, the national president of the UFCW. "These are farm workers, not farm animals, and people have human rights, including the right to bargain."

The union also challenged the law in Canadian courts and won at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The provincial government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the case was heard almost a year ago. A decision is expected anytime, according to Raper.

"We have been to the Supreme Court three times on this matter, and each time we've won. But we have not been able to get the government to provide the legal protections we are working for and that agricultural workers are working for," Raper said.

Raper said agricultural workers deserve the same rights as others to organize and secure contracts to ensure safe conditions and compensation.

Meanwhile, Slim and his coworkers at Ghesquiere Plant Farm left Canada on Wednesday with less money than they counted on.

"Christmas is around the corner," he said. "It's not going to be as bright as it could have been with that money, so we just have to live with our losses, nothing else we can do."