Of lately, especially during the US Presidential election and afterward, we heard a lot about undocumented, illegal aliens, i.e. people that are illegally in the USA. Their issue is a contentious one for governments, political parties, civil rights activists, and pro-immigrant groups alike. In spite of their status, they form part of a wider migrant labour group, legal, and illegal, which provide vital services to the North American economy. The migrant labour group is the lifeblood of farming industry in USA and Canada.

Migrant workers perform mostly manual, tedious, and unskilled jobs at farms, small and big, across the country tending vegetables, fruits, and farm animals. Every year thousands of seasonal workers from faraway lands, mainly from Caribbean islands and Central and South American countries, are brought in to do the mundane jobs. Some are seasonal workers, yet others are employed year around but on a temporary basis. There are legal with proper visas, and illegal workers without a permit to stay or work. Then there are illegal, undocumented, aliens that came via many means and disappeared into the underground.

farm labour
Image credit: pixabay.com


Migrant workers undertake menial jobs that others shun. They are silent and invisible and fear of repercussions due to the lack of laws protecting them. They come, mostly men, under-educated, and poor, do their routine jobs that no one else wants, they collect their wages, they do a meagre existence, send money home to support their families, and, when the season ends they go back. The cycle repeats during every planting to harvest season. Their wages are often low. They have no social life. And they have no labour union privileges to protect them.

However, the Canadian migrant worker situation is different when compared to the US. Migrant workers come to Canada, about 15,000 annually, under a federal government program. In Canada, government regulations are in place to protect the workers’ wages, health, safety, and welfare aspects. Nevertheless, they are prone to abuse, due to lack of oversight by various government agencies. Their working environments are somewhat harsh, but most of the employers treat them well. News items on migrant workers in Canada are rare as laws protect them. But occasionally there may be an incident or two that attract newspaper coverage. A recent survey has shown that many operate heavy farm equipment and handle chemicals and pesticides without adequate training and precautions.

From the economic perspective, it is a win-win situation for both farmers and the migrant workers. Migrant workers are a source of cheap labour for the farmers, and for the workers, it is a source of steady and good income when compared to their homeland situations. As more and more citizens decline to work in farms and undertake menial jobs throngs of migrant workers fill the void.

According to a PBS.org report, the migratory farm labour in the US started following the Civil War. The migrant labour force was comprised of, then and now, poor, disadvantaged, and minorities. These workers, over a million, migrate from state to state looking for work in the farming industry. Many children (estimated numbers range from 300,000 and upwards) also work in farms across the country. In the USA, it is an entirely different situation due to the sheer number of migrant workers, and the disparate nature of the laws protecting them.

The story of César Chávez is synonymous with the plight of migrant workers. He was an American farm worker, labour leader, and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later became United Farm Workers or UFW). Through non-violent tactics, he was able to bring the plight of farm workers into the mainstream, was able to organize them, and gained national support. President Clinton honoured Mr. Chávez posthumously with the Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour.

According to various statistics, there are about 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S: many of them support an underground economy. This is a major headache for Americans and is a hot button and divisive issue for political parties. The ever-growing illegal migrant worker situation is a sore point for every US administration.

(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)