Working, Not Working
Locating Injury Among Canada’s Migrant Workers
I promised myself I wouldn’t make this essay an entrepreneurial exegesis about writing and failure, but hear me out. I’m a writer who tends to write about literature, art, culture, blackness, gender, and the ruses of that thing we call Canada. I never considered myself a capital-J Journalist (cold objectivity kills people and lies about it later) but I do sometimes interview people. Last year, I interviewed Andrew, a Jamaican-born migrant worker who had worked on farms in Canada for many years. Focusing on the role of health care and migrant labor in Southern Ontario, I wrote more drafts than I have dreams. But everything felt like soundbites. I was listening to the noise where migrant labor is a problem to be fixed, a problem with appropriate answers in policy, crystallizing as a common liberal desire to fix the state of things via a packaged panacea. I left the draft behind for a long while but I couldn’t shake the story. It wasn’t Andrew exactly who had me caught up (or even what we might have represented), it was the undetected terror, the way mundane forms of violence are illegible, and unreportable. We know damn well that atrocities happen every day, but we don’t know it because we see it. I recalled my favorite line in Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion:” “We cannot draw close the net in which we stand.” And me, I knew I stood for something but I couldn’t respond with more policy-driven language. We are too far gone. Although this published version still doesn’t feel quite right, that’s okay, I think. What you’re about to read is somewhat of a defeat. It’s a defeat in the sense that I refused to produce solutions on the problem I was investigating, the so-called problem of migrant labor in Canada. I am tired of feigning to resolve the heavy-duty issues. Instead, I tried to unearth the entanglements, the mess of things, the imbricated social life and social death that is all around us.
1. Before I called Andrew, a Jamaican migrant worker who spent seasons farming in Canada, I didn’t know the extent of his injuries, even the ones he had gotten on the job. What I knew was mostly the political landscape in which he and people like him sit: a place where “right” and “not right” are curious bedfellows, a place of racialized labor frequently euphemized as “controversial” by the media. It takes a worker to be dramatized as disposable, often after an injury, for political and social issues to take shape for a polite citizenry.
In the past few years, there have been numerous reports relating to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada’s national newspapers. The issues range but are often singular: physical injuries, racist comments, a DNA sweep based on skin color, the Employment Minister’s ban of foreign workers in the restaurant industry, unemployment rates, insurance and health care benefits expiring after a serious car accident in an employer’s vehicle, filed rights-based complaints, and a recent, rare landmark human rights ruling. On April 1, 2015 the Stephen Harper administration saw its 2011 rule, “4-in-4-out,” come to fruition, meaning many temporary foreign workers will be kicked out, not able to return to Canada before four years.
By now, should any of this be surprising? There are countless naked facts.
Sponsored by the Jamaican and Canadian governments through a bilateral agreement dating back to the dawn of productive accumulation in the 1960s, Andrew worked as a seasonal farm worker in Ontario for more than 13 years before a routine job tightening cables ended with an accident that resulted in a shattered cheekbone and broken nose. He is one of many migrant workers who get injured while working in Canada and then are sent back to their “home country,” sometimes unable to formally work.
On the phone, Andrew speaks to me with a patois lilt. He sounds open and matter-of-fact, making obvious the electric tension between the cellphone’s static. His resolute voice reminds me of my own Jamaican father’s and the way I used to cry listening to Wyclef Jean’s “Gone ‘til November” on loop. Unlike my dad’s, Andrew’s answers come easy, in part I imagine because of the assistance he’s gotten understanding complex opportunities for legal recourse and possible claims to entitlement from a non-profit community legal clinic. After I had difficulty finding a migrant worker willing to talk (workers who speak out against their employers face unimaginable repercussions), I found my usually-dangerously-interview-shy self grateful for the conversation.
2. Andrew is not his real name.
3. On the one hand, the recourse to claims of physical injury on behalf of migrant workers becomes one entryway into the conversation. On the other hand, it frames and truncates, creating an issue-led crusade, an unfightable war. To draw the outside closer to the center is to keep the eyes on the putative whole, disregarding fragments and subjectivities. In a political landscape of supposed agency-holding subjects, we pride ourselves on knowing right from wrong, and part of that equation also means being able to pinpoint hurt, its location, and its possible routes to repair. We too often seriously ask: Who is the bad actor? What can we do to fix the problem? By converging politics and ethics, locating injury or even inquiry requires a tightly wound individualized spin. It takes a strong fixation, like pinning the tail on the donkey in the middle of a dark room on the verge of catastrophe. Locating the source of power is, at all angles, impossible. Even as labor organizing attempts to make visible the category of labor, to unveil its panoptic force, we must also heed to the social lives and practices that cling to labor. My own anxiety around so-called reporting, telling the “right” story, the story that will find its way on the moral side of history yields a question of whether or not the optimal conditions exist for migrant workers to give an account of themselves. This is a constant narrative challenge. The temptation is to ask: Can they be unsilenced? Or, further: Can we be the ones to un-silence them?
What gets lost in a framework of injury is that social world that emerges when I think of Andrew: his own kids, the church women in Jamaica who are now slipping him what cash they can scrounge up so that he can make do, his coworkers who whisper under their breath, the sudden sound of being put on hold, my own father. Part of this has to do with care – not just who cares about Andrew but who cares for Andrew. It is like what Christina Sharpe said so softly in her article “Black Studies: In the Wake”, “How do we who are doing work in black studies tend to, care for, comfort, and defend the dead, the dying, and those living lives consigned, in the aftermath of legal slavery, to death that is always-imminent and immanent?”
Related to the problematics of care, there is also a mundane quality – bureaucracy in filing a complaint, waiting, multiple governments to navigate, more waiting – that is foreclosed in supposedly well-meaning journalistic genres of storytelling. The wounds are real yet there is still life all around, life that injury alone cannot account for. Put another way by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in The Undercommons, “Critique endangers the sociality it is supposed to defend.” While I may have had Andrew’s voice, even if for an hour over the phone, I don’t have the voices of the people who help to sustain his life.
Outside and yet in proximity to the religion of data, there are forms of knowledge that come from speculation, associative thinking, and fiction. Instead of “proving” what is broken about a broken system, an impossible task, there are only more questions to be asked. How does the migrant-worker question help us to think about labor itself? How do lives become expendable or useful within the category of work? How do they become functional rather than valuable? When you’re outside of a country for work, does work end? When you wake up in sleeping quarters provided by your employer, does work begin? Likewise, where does injury begin and end in a time structured by settler colonialism, a time after the putative end of slavery?
4. It might be that I seem reluctant toward facts but, sure, some exist. Fact: There are at least 192,000 people who came to in Canada in 2011 via the federal Temporary Foreign Worker program, which includes both seasonal agricultural workers like Andrew as well as live-in caregivers and domestic workers, usually women.
To venture into more facts, last year I talked to Chris Ramsaroop, a community organizer from Justicia for Migrant Workers, who argues that Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is propped up by “inherent racism.” He framed the happenings as a trend of Canadian politicians identifying grievances with program and then finding ways to just get rid of the problem i.e. black and brown people, restoring the national body to purity. He recalls the outright ban of Chinese immigrants to Canada in the 1920s after Chinese workers completed the Canadian Pacific Railway.
“Race has always played an essential role in the development, application and expansion of the program,” he said. He pointed to how black men’s bodies were constructed as bigger, weathered and better able to handle grueling working conditions. “This idea of racial embodiment, for some racialized populations, that their physical attributes are somehow representative of what type of jobs they belong to in our society,” he said.
5. Ramsaroop is getting after isolation, alienation, wounded social relations, the way that injury can’t be readily located within the migrant worker. A dull routine-ness constitutes the extended brutality of the program, a violence endemic to the very structure of migrant labor as a sustaining tool of capitalist production. Seasonal farm workers, tied to their employer, can be replaced on a whim. Because re-entry into the program each season is largely dependent upon their employers, like any employee, migrant workers are charged with managing professional relationships, which are always also personal relationships verifying power, as a tool of their livelihood: to refuse an employer’s request is essentially to refuse work. An injury is already grounds for frustrating an employer, let alone the frustration spurred by launching either a formal or informal complaint. Injury becomes framed as laziness, which becomes naturalized in the black worker.
It is by way of Jamaica that Karl Marx talks about industriousness. In a section that Orlando Patterson called “one of the liveliest passages in Grundrisse,” Marx writes:
The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation – as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery – how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this “use value,” regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations, but rather observe the planters’ impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure, and even exploit their acquired Christianity as an embellishment for this mood of malicious glee and indolence. They have ceased to be slaves, but not in order to become wage labourers, but, instead, self-sustaining peasants working for their own consumption. As far as they are concerned, capital does not exist as capital, because autonomous wealth as such can exist only either on the basis of direct forced labour, slavery, or indirect force labour, wage labour.
This refusal of work can’t be valorized within the now-sexy Italian post-workerist language where the forthcoming liberation of work emerges out of a new world or even within a sort of creativity-producing way that 19th century Marxist and anti-work proponent Paul Lafargue would’ve endorsed. Here, the refusal is firmly located with injury. What does it mean to care for oneself as a response to injury? How is one person’s vision of laziness another’s inevitable care of the self? (This is not your Internet’s motto of self-care.) Consider Bifo when he wrote “Refusal of work means quite simply: I don’t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep.” Refusal in another light means quite seriously: I don’t want to go to work because I need to sleep.
In this world, there is no want for the migrant worker, only need. Yet the intense banality of this accretion of everyday violence and the creative and necessary responses to those conditions are muddied.
If injury is the refusal of work, then the refusal of work is a form of care in the sense that it is not directed towards a critique solely of work but also of the objectification of living. When there are more injuries to count, pin down, and expropriate, what makes a life under the global orders of racial capitalism? I wanted so much not only to listen to Andrew and his categorical position as a worker but also feel the social worlds and lived realities around him, the people and forces that cared for him. But his voice alone is all I have and it would be foolish to say I even have it at all.
6. I know I basically said to forget answers, forget communication but, fuck it, I want to hear Andrew in order to parse out what inhabits the space and time of disposability. I want to listen to him as he clarifies the world. In the famous words of Toni Morrison from Beloved, “this is not a story to pass on,” and yet Andrew sounded so sure.
Since his first season in Canada, Andrew worked in various small towns in southern Ontario. In Waterford, where he worked for the last nine years of his employment in Canada, he learned to operate some of the tractors. He caught on quickly and became one of the “top spray-persons,” growing crops such as sweet potato and soybeans. “I became one of the men who [my boss] could depend on because I could do just about anything, operate any tractor, any equipment,” he told me.
Later, after Andrew received more training, he realized his boss was letting him spray without a respirator, a device that protects farmers from hazards such as pesticide vapors, dust, nitrogen dioxide and other damaging risks. “For the first year I did that, I sprayed without a respirator,” he said. “I realized something really was wrong.” It seems strangely accurate, though, that extra training was what allowed him to recognize his risk of poison. In other words, the consciousness of the worker is already structured by his exposure to death.
Andrew was alone when he got injured tightening up loose cables after the winter. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I just seen something struck me in my face. I was working independently. No one around, but the work phone was [there]. So I picked up the work phone and I called the boss... [I] realized my face was bleeding.”
He found out later that he broke his nose and his cheekbone. Andrew went to the hospital for surgery, after which he faced complications. He now suffers from back problems, whiplash, and difficulty bending, lifting, and breathing. Back in Jamaica, he’s unable to do the little farming and gardening that he used to. Even though he ignored his employer’s demands to go back to work, Andrew was able to stay in Canada, sleeping at a friend’s in Toronto, for the duration of treatment after his injury, and he’s thankful for it. “The best thing is to get the health care here because I know my country, and health care is a really hard thing to come by and if you can get it, it’s costly. I don’t have the money here to do it,” he said.
Andrew told me he would like to go back to Canada for work. Since workers’ readmittance to the program depends upon their employers, it’s been hard to swing; his employer for around a decade ignored him after Andrew listened to his doctor who said he couldn’t work with his injury. (His employer read this more like, Andrew wouldn’t work.) But for now he’s trying to make ends meet. “This is something I’m going to live with for the rest of my life,” he said.
7. Reports on foreign farm workers’ health and compensation often assume there’s a hermetic seal between work and life. Health gets inserted in this split, it is its own category, ranked closer to the “life” category, closer to the top than work. But if you both live and work, you know the work-life balance is an ignis fatuus.
Injury and the available health care after one is an important entry point into the question of migrant work because it shows both the breakdown and building up of the connection between life and work, that is to say, a body’s health and a worker’s productivity. If we can consider this space of injury – physical, emotional, financial, and so on – as a prototypical example of how work takes all of you.
(Likewise, work can give you all of you: take mandatory social team building days or Google’s gym-in-your-workplace as softcore examples. With late capitalism, we see the intensification of the bleeding of leisure into work or another form, work-as-leisure, and suddenly it becomes plainly obvious that the precarious labor of migrant workers, a sometimes distant political issue, is also a too-close example of how work and life aren’t distinct. The time and space of labor gets simultaneously expanded and eclipsed, and a “work-life balance” isn’t an aspiration, it’s an invention. Your flexible labor isn’t even yours, it’s your employer’s, contractor’s or editor’s.)
8. After talking to Andrew on the phone in a stairwell, I figured I should zoom out. I was too emotional. After all, he reminded me of my father. I sobered up and tried to collect some equally sober stats.
So I put on my Real Journalist Shoes – I was barefoot in my apartment – and contacted the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, a quasi-governmental provincial agency that covers agricultural migrant workers in Ontario. They couldn’t give me a number on how many claims from migrant workers they get each year or the percentage of injured migrant workers who end up being re-employed in Canada. A “Public Relations Specialist” for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board told me in an email that they don’t collect statistics on migrant workers claims because their “system does not classify claims in this manner.”
I wasn’t, of course, expecting a solid answer from the board. I only know now that I was expecting defeat. That the data didn’t exist was another sign of the incalculability of injury. I am often told to forget my insistence that numbers lie. To be faithful to the incalculability of injury is to not only critique work but also commit oneself to studying not numbers but the objectification of living and how the precariousness of labor pathologizes life.
9. In Makeda Silvera’s 1983 book Silenced: Talks with Working Class Caribbean Women About Their Lives and Struggles as Domestic Workers in Canada, Silvera calls her subjects “legal slaves,” and lets them speak out against their conditions. It is an important text that has an even more important feel – an eighties black feminist feel – even if giving voice to the voiceless is an ideal politics. We’ve trained ourselves to be over that by now. Today we’re often urged to complicate how our writing voices engulf the voice of an amorphous subaltern, but the significance of Silenced remains: migrant laborers’ claims to entitlement, even if law exists, aren’t worth much. Silvera’s collective account lures us to ask if the injury is that workers aren’t heard, that one of her subject’s rape isn’t taken seriously, for instance.
Armed with feminism’s investments in oral histories as a truth-telling mechanism, Silvera’s autobiographical perspective is also reminiscent of a mid-century method of recording, documenting and editing rank and file workers thoughts, employed by Marxists like CLR James and Raya Dunayevksaya. “Giving voice to the voiceless” is a humanist response to the effects of alienation. Yet even this approach can repeat a certain kind of subjection if we accept that there’s an essential human to restore. Recovering that human voice comes up again and again: Can this injury be repaired just by giving voice?
In Silenced, Hyacinth, born in St. Lucia, says such an intelligent thing: “I wanted so much to touch the snow.” Contemporary global economic relationships are considered natural, and not the making of the amnesiac and anesthetic histories of capitalism that are often accumulative, repetitive, and mundane. Far away but close enough, we can feel our senses, we jot down glimpses of desire. It’s the goal to touch snow, the dazes, the life-sustaining drives, the capacity for mourning, the tenacity to imagine that gets muted, stripped away, and turned into calculation, existing on a threshold that we call plainly “borders.”