CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 15 . . . .April 1, 2005
One spring day, while I was waiting in the Arrivals area at Pearson Airport in Toronto, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a large number of Mexican arrivals. I figured that these were migrant workers and they were here to begin the new season. Sure enough, names were called out, and the men went to the various bosses to whom they were assigned. For some, it was a reunion with the boss; for others it was a first time meeting. A number of names were called, but the men were not there. It was then that I started wondering what would happen if I stood up and answered to one of the names. What would it be like to be a migrant worker in southwestern Ontario? In El Contrato, the answer is clearly, "Not very good." Or as one of the workers in the film states, "Slavery has not disappeared."
This film follows the lives of Mexican workers in Leamington, Ontario. Leamington, once famous for Heinz tomatoes, is now the most concentrated area of greenhouses in all of North America. One quarter of a billion pounds of tomatoes come from this area. The work is difficult, and, as one speaker sums up, "If that's all you can do, how smart can you be?" The growers in Leamington rely heavily on Mexican workers who have been contracted out to do the work. One greenhouse alone can employ 100 workers.
El Contrato looks in detail at two migrant workers, Teodoro and "M" who wears a mask to hide his identity. The film begins in Mexico as the workers prepare to leave home for the next eight months. Only married men can apply so as to ensure that no one stays behind in Canada after the contract is over. They also must have less than a grade school education. The contract stipulates that they will work seven days a week, ten hours a day at $7.25 per hour. A quarter of their salary will be taken by income tax, C.P.P., E.I. and costs associated with their transportation and board. They are provided with housing, but, in Teodoro's house, there are nine other men living in very close quarters. If someone gets sick, he is sent back to Mexico. If anyone causes any trouble or challenges the bosses, he can be sent back as well. There are no regulations in the use of pesticides, no mandatory safety training, no protection against pesticide spraying. If anyone refuses to do what he is told, he is sent back to Mexico or not rehired. When the Mexican Consul General is called in to mediate in the mistreatment of one of the workers, he makes it clear that they are not to cause any trouble. The claim is made that this official is more interested in the contract with the growers than in the rights of the Mexican workers. He states that he cannot deal with problems on a case-by-case basis. He has to see the big picture, and so he insists on their cooperation.
El Contrato is a hard-hitting film. A number of men are given the chance to send messages home, and it is clear that they are not happy being away. They miss their families and would much rather be home. They simply have no choice as there is no work at home and their families need the support that they are able to provide. One worker breaks into tears when he learns that his wife has delivered their baby girl prematurely. He had hoped to be home in time. Workers relate stories of abuses and mistreatment only when they are assured that their faces will not be filmed. Teodoro tries to move to another farm as he and his supervisor are not getting along. The other grower will take him but will not provide the return trip home. Teodoro cannot afford that, and so he decides to stay, but he could not leave anyway unless both owners agree to the transaction.
While these men are essential to the greenhouse operations, they are not always welcomed in the community. One speaker, in an attempt to show her open-mindedness, states that when some of the Mexican workers get inebriated "the police just call their owners and they come pick them up." Another states, "They're human beings, but when you're not used to something, it's like walking into Mexico."
The film is most powerful when the workers call home. Clearly, the time away is difficult for everyone. The absence is a challenge but so are the working conditions. However, each man knows that if he were to quit that there is a line waiting in Mexico for his place. Teodoro states, "If 2,000 or 4,000 refuse to return, another 4,000 would come." After another visit by the Consul General, the men feel that his basic message is, "If you don't like the conditions in Canada, don't come."
After the contract has been completed on Saturday, Teodoro and some others have to wait until Monday for their cheque. It takes a number of phone calls before the cheque arrives just hours before their plane is scheduled to leave. The men feel that they are being kicked right to the last minute in Canada.
Once home, the men debate whether or not to return to Canada in the spring. Most have been coming for years; there is nothing else they can do.
El Contrato is clearly a one-sided presentation. However, it is clear also that these men do not have a voice in Canada. One grower admits that they are not perfect, but then states that they are close. The filmmakers do not agree.
The film would be of use in any class dealing with Ethics, Law, Economics, Moral Issues, or Media at the senior level. Much of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.