Mary-Catherine McIntosh – 2009 Award Recipient

Advocates for Foreign Workers — Toronto


I spent a week in Toronto observing advocates for foreign workers. For the most part, I kept my recorder in my bag and asked few questions. I watched and listened.

I knew that I’d see things that would make me uncomfortable during the week. I’d done stories about how many workers who come to Canada on big promises end up used by some Canadians instead. I’d had discussions on the topic with people who seemed uninterested in those stories. I’d failed myself, as an English-speaking journalist, to understand the thick governmental structure that brings workers here and is supposed to keep them safe. I was ready to be disgusted.

Migrant farm workers have a Sunday picnic with a Thai translator.

And I was. I saw farm signs that warned migrant workers (in capital letters) that they aren’t allowed visitors. I felt a chill when I learned that a recruiter I’d met was charging Filipina caregivers thousands in illegal fees to come here, then renting rooms to more than a dozen of them at a time. I spoke with a farm worker who admitted only after a long, quiet conversation he was sick because he was being forced to work regularly in a freshly-sprayed greenhouse, but whose family needed his pay so he would not complain. I felt the discomfort of other farm workers who were unconvinced the person I was following was actually a worker advocate trying to educate them about their rights, and not a person sent by their employer or recruiter to test their loyalty to the farm. I watched an advocate coach a group of Thai women on how to testify against the employer who had sexually abused them (“They’ll try to confuse you,” the advocate warned). I heard about confiscated passports; 16-hour days; rules against leaving workplaces even after shifts. Those are not the stories many Canadians would like to face. It’s so much easier to ignore them.

There was much more to the week than those unsettling experiences though. The volunteers I followed were among the most inspiring people I have ever met. They’ve devoted their lives to foreign workers; often without even a thanks in return.

Anna, a community organizer, plans her day.
Anna often brings her three boys along on long volunteer days.

When I first met Pura Velasco, an advocate for live-in caregivers, she told me to have patience. She said she spends hours each week sitting in a coffee shop waiting for caregivers to come to her for help. Sometimes caregivers can’t get away from work; other times they lose their nerve. Often no one comes, yet she returns again and again. Then later, on what must have been the hottest summer weekend day in Toronto, Pura and I took three buses, two streetcars and two trains to meet with caregivers in the basement of a church. But no one came. “See,” she said fanning herself with her papers, “you have to be patient.”

Chris, a longtime advocate for migrant farm workers, takes a break between farm visits.

At another point in the week, I was at a truck stop somewhere along the 401 in a minivan with Chris Ramsaroop, a longtime advocate for migrant farm workers, a man named Ibrahim who had answered a craigslist ad asking for a volunteer driver with wheels (and time) and Keaw, a Thai translator.

We were trying to get some sleep. It was after midnight. We’d been on the road distributing pamphlets on workers’ compensation to farm workers since eight the morning before. At a number of farms, workers had been either too uncomfortable to listen or just not interested. Chris seemed undeterred. He was used to it. He’d been making similar farm calls three times a week for the last decade. “You can’t push it,” he said. “You have to have patience.”

The Greg Clark Award’s an important one. I finish almost every day wishing I had just a little more time to look a little more closely at the issues I cover. I often hear more experienced journalists muse about the past, when there was in fact more time and more money to explore. This award gives journalists who are just starting out a taste of just how valuable it is to take a closer look.

Thank you to Pura Velasco, Chris Ramsaroop, Sedef Arat-Koc, Marilyn Oladimeji, Grace and Purie for helping me understand. Thank you also to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, The Toronto Star and CTV for making it possible for me to learn from them. It was an incredible experience.

My sincere thanks,

Mary-Catherine McIntosh