Migrant farm workers in Norfolk County have a new place to call their own.
The Centre for Migrant Worker Solidarity recently opened on Kent Street in Simcoe. Once gathering restrictions are eased, director Fanny Belcoski will welcome workers looking to connect to free Wi-Fi, get answers to legal and workplace safety questions, or just hang out together.
“The idea is to have a physical place where they can come for information, for support, for internet,” Belcoski said.
The centre is funded by Service Canada through a $163,000 grant administered by KAIROS Canada, a faith-based social justice organization.
Connie Sorio, migrant justice co-ordinator with KAIROS, said the Simcoe centre aims to keep workers safe from COVID-19 and informed of their rights.
“People brought to Canada from overseas to work here are often not aware of or are unable to access available services or advocate for themselves if their rights are violated, especially during the pandemic,” Sorio said.
“We want to mobilize community organizations and individuals to welcome these workers — not just by saying ‘we welcome you,’ but by providing the supports and services workers need.”
Norfolk needed a new centre for migrant workers after a gathering place run by the United Food and Commercial Workers union closed in 2017.
“When the centre closed, workers were without a home,” said Belcoski, who co-ordinated the previous centre and put off retirement to take on this new project.
“We find that having an office gives us a presence and some visibility. The centre is a place where workers can come and gather,” added Rev. Peter Ciallella, a Catholic priest who provides support to migrant workers out of his parish, Blessed Sacrament in Burford.
Among the centre’s first projects is to assemble and distribute 5,000 “welcome bags” to workers quarantining at area farms or hotels. Inside each bag are handy items such as face masks and hand sanitizer, soap and toothpaste, a towel and socks, and packages of cookies and granola bars.
“This is a way to say, ‘Thank you for coming to Canada and for the work you do,’” Belcoski said.
There is also contact information for the new centre in case workers need help while in quarantine. Already this season, Ciallella conducted a prayer service over the phone for a worker whose mother died in Mexico not long after he landed in Canada.
Before the latest lockdown, local elementary school classes made cards welcoming farm workers to Norfolk and thanking them for their essential work. One of the colourful cards is in each bag.
“The workers love the cards. They make them feel welcome,” Belcoski said.
“We wanted to get the schools involved because we want the kids to know that the workers are here. They put the food on the table, and the workers are not invisible. They have voices too.”
Langton berry farmer Helen Zamecnik of EZ Grow Farms — which brings in 35 migrant workers from Jamaica and Trinidad each spring — called the welcome bags a “wonderful” initiative.
“Pretty well everything that’s in the bag is what I as a farmer would leave on their beds or on the counter,” said Zamecnik, who stocks the workers’ bunkhouses with groceries and other useful items.
“Even down to the socks — they always know they’re going to get a fresh, warm pair of socks from me, and it’s in the bag,” she said.
“So it’s all most welcomed and most appreciated. And everything will be used — that I know for a fact.”
Besides the practicality — Zamecnik said the sturdy bags themselves will come in handy in the fields and while shopping — the gifts are a morale boost.
“They right away felt special,” said Zamecnik. “Every bit helps, and if there’s a smile at the end of it, then it’s a good thing.”
Staff at the centre created short online videos in English and Spanish to educate workers about COVID-19 precautions and testing, and their rights while in Canada. Belcoski also fields questions about employment benefits, and if workers need help reporting unsafe working conditions or inadequate housing, the centre can be a first point of contact.
“Any questions they have, we guide them to the right channels,” Belcoski said.
Sorio hopes the centre will eventually serve to educate the broader community about “the role migrant workers play in our whole economic and food security system” while “decreasing the racism and xenophobia that many people have.”
“It’s an opportunity to deepen that understanding and also deepen that gratitude for what the migrant workers bring to us,” she said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator