This week, on October 8th and 9th, Simon Fraser University is hosting a conference on Temporary Migrant Workers entitled “Labour Rights and Organizing Strategies”. RankandFile caught up with one of the speakers, Adriana Paz Ramirez, for an interview. Ramirez is a co-founder of and organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers in British Columbia, a national grassroots organization advocating for the labour and immigration rights of migrant farm workers. She currently lives in Mexico and works with the Solidarity Center AFL-CIO where she organizes with maquila female workers near the US/Mexico border and with farmworkers in Baja, California. Her talk, taking place on the 9th, at 9:45 am, is based on her M.A. thesis, “Embodying and Resisting Labour Apartheid: Racism and Mexican Farm Workers under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program”.
Can you describe the work you’re doing in Mexico?
I organize with workers from different parts of Mexico. I’ve been working mostly with female maquila workers – in sweatshops – at the US/Mexico border, near Texas. I’ve also been in Baja, California with farm workers from a community called San Quintin. They have been on strike for three months and they are still on strike. They’re trying to get a union. The dimension of the struggles are very different than in Canada because there’s intense structural repression from kidnapping; disappearance of activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and even civilians. The people who are organizing here for labour rights, many of them are persecuted, kidnapped, and tortured, so it’s quite an intense context. They are attacking the transnational, economic interests of powerful players. People here risk their life. In Canada, you can lose your job organizing. In Mexico you can easily lose your life.
I’ve also been working with domestic workers. They got the first union in history in Mexico. I’m still connected to migrant farm workers in Canada because my group is still doing its work. I try to do my part from here.
You’ve talked about the different challenges between farm workers and organizers in Mexico and those here. Can you talk about what work Justicia for Migrant Workers is doing right now and what some of the common struggles might be?
Farm workers in British Columbia, Canada, Mexico, and even the United States are very similar in the sense that they are all being exploited. Bottom line. Agriculture is one of the industries where you can see best the manifestations and legacies of slavery. That is why farm workers unions are a huge challenge, are a huge struggle to take on because, even though in some provinces in Canada, migrant farm workers are allowed to organize into unions, there are no farm workers unions here in Canada. There are associations like the UFCW [the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has a division called the Agriculture Workers Alliance] but there are no unions. Agricultural is a very interesting site to look at it because you can see how colonialism, colonial power operate in these modern times. Talking about modern times, we can see how the conditions in the fields in Mexico, the US, and in Canada are basically modern, slave-like conditions. Some similarities that come to mind across borders, transnationally, we see that there are no labour standards for workers. In the cases where there are labour standards, legally these workers are excluded as is the case in British Columbia. Farm workers in British Columbia are excluded from different articles of employment standards and regarding the immigration status of farm workers they are excluded for another reason.
In Florida we have the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. It’s one of the biggest, more powerful, and amazing grassroots farm workers organizations that is made up of workers from Central America, Mexico, and South America. Through my work with Justicia, we had a lot of exchanges, trying to build a transnational movement of farm workers. I know their organizing techniques – they are brilliant. It’s amazing to see how they discuss sharing strategies, sharing tactics of resistance and they go back and forth. I make this point because we see how capital moves across borders and it’s way more difficult for people to make this movement. But somehow the struggle and resistance also moves across borders. To see that is very inspiring. The workers that I’m involved with are Mexican workers that they brought the organizing techniques, experiences, and ways of resistance to. They created this organization that somehow trains farm workers who go back to Mexico and fight back. In British Columbia, we have met lots of the workers that are in Canada. I see these amazing possibilities for organizing international movements.
You mentioned that particularly workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) can be unionized but there simply isn’t a union representing them. In light of that, and your criticisms of the BC Federation of Labour’s framing of migrant workers, do you think of the labour movement is living up to its obligations to farm workers?
Since we’re talking about unionization and the challenges in the agricultural industry, it’s important we talk about the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU), organized by the South Asian farm workers. In BC, we have a beautiful history of resistance that unfortunately is not very well known. They were able to really win significant victories in the past, in the 1980s. There was a huge backlash from the government and from the employers and they weren’t able to sustain the union. I think they were way more powerful and effective when they were operating as a community organization because they not only created this union but they created other organizations – a multiracial and multilingual organization that brought together different communities of colour, the Filipino, Chinese, and the South Asian community – to combat racism. They were linking the conditions of economic exploitation of farm workers with racism and I think that’s the right approach. When you want to organize farm workers you have to make the racial logic of exploitation central to your struggle. And that’s one of the things the white unions aren’t really taking into account. Farm workers are not the same as white workers. There are differences. For example, one of the things that the labour movement has taken a long time to support was the callout of many grassroots organizations, migrant rights organizations, to regularize and grant full-status for migrant farm workers or migrant workers in general. Justicia was one of the first organizations to advocate for full status for migrant workers, understanding that their temporary status is the key issue that prevented not only organizing but being able to stop the exploitation. Some of the unions say that’s not a really practical goal to advocate for. I think in this time we need people to take risks so I think everybody – labour activists and migrant rights activists – should be advocating for full status. This is something that I would like to see more decision from the labour movement…because we are falling into the state’s categories of who is a permanent immigrant, who is temporary, who is a refugee, and all these are artificial categories to justify the exclusion of workers. There are unions who have been making the effort to unionize farm workers but they don’t advocate for full permanent status for workers and I don’t see how that organizing effort can be successful. When farm workers wanted to unionize in BC, they were blacklisted by the Mexican consulate and they weren’t brought back the next year. You want to organize, you want to have your union, then you’re out of the program. So we can’t talk about labour rights if we don’t talk about immigration issues. They won’t be able to unionize if they don’t have permanent residency.
What can we look forward to in your talk?
I’m basically going to talk about presenting the SAWP as a regime of labour apartheid. I compare the migrant farm workers in Canada with the migrant, black mining workers in South Africa. I compare the restrictions for both of them, like housing guidelines. Even though Canada has officially eliminated racism from the constitution many years ago and they embrace multiculturalism as official policy, I am arguing that it’s only a way of masking the racism that is institutionalized, that is not legalized. It is not official, it is not legal, however we are using a racist framework that shapes the everyday experiences of the workers.
I’m not only talking about the exploitation. I also talk about everyday strategies of resistance of the workers. When you look at the issues that the workers are resisting, and the ways that they resist, you can have a good understanding of the powers that they confront. And you can have a good idea of the oppressive system of the labour apartheid regime. And also, being an organizer, I am very interested in re-framing what the system means, and I’m interested in re-framing a language of what a victory looks like. My hope is that if we start thinking of these migrant workers programs as highly-controlled labour regimes, we can start talking about other strategies of resistance to debunk the program. The only way that the South African apartheid was finished was because of a language that acknowledged the exclusionary system as such. In Canada, if we don’t name it, if we don’t call it as it is, we will never be able to challenge this regime.