It's all about giving power to a vulnerable but crucial population.
“It’s about empowerment,” explained Rev. Antonio Illas, who runs the Migrant Farmworkers Project, an initiative that provides services to seasonal workers in Niagara. “We empower a vulnerable neighbour in our midst.”
On April 28, the program kicked off its 2022 season, run by St Alban’s Anglican Church in Beamsville.
They welcomed 56 seasonal workers to access a range of services, including medical clinic, food security pantry, clothing donations, bike shop, open church and hospitality.
At the centre, seasonal workers have access to donated shoes, toiletries, cosmetics, hygiene items, religious paraphernalia and winter coats. Among the shelves of food available there is a section of Mexican goods to give the seasonal workers a taste of home.
There is also a bicycle market and mechanic. For $25, seasonal workers can purchase a refurbished bicycle, and that fee is refunded once the bike is returned. The money raised is used to buy more parts and repair more bikes.
A health clinic, run by Quest, a community health centre based out of St. Catharines, allows seasonal workers to access primary health care they might not otherwise be able to access.
Moises Vasquez, community health worker with Quest, explained the hurdles that prevent seasonal workers from accessing health care and how the clinic eliminates those barriers.
One is the lack of transportation to clinics, so Quest provides clinics in Beamsville, Virgil and Vineland, close to the farms on which the workers are employed.
Another is the lack of OHIP cards, which can take up to six weeks to arrive, so Quest does not require health cards from patients.
The language barrier also prevents patients receiving the best care, so Quest offers services in Spanish, and a volunteer translator is available.
Finally, workers often do not want to report they are sick for fear of being repatriated, so services are strictly confidential.
Rev. Dan Tatarnic, priest-in-charge of St Alban’s Church, was proud of the clinic. “There aren’t many churches that have a medical clinic, so it’s a darn good start to something.”
Because of the pandemic, the program closed its doors for two years, but Illas and the team continued to provide services to seasonal workers, including a grocery drop-off service. “This project did not stop serving this community,” he said.
Seasonal workers are undoubtedly vital to Niagara’s economy. Kevin Watson, who runs Watson’s Vineyard and employs seven workers, said “these guys save your business. There’s no other way of putting this.”
“We’re very, very fortunate to have these guys,” he said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Phil Tregunno, chair of Ontario Tender Fruit Growers, who said that if seasonal workers didn’t come to Canada, then agriculture “couldn’t operate. It would stop.”
He said that, although they must advertise for the positions on Canadian job banks, there aren’t enough applications to fill their needs. When asked if there were many Canadian applicants to the jobs, Tregunno said “no, not to speak of. Very few.”
While seasonal workers are essential to Niagara’s economy, staff at the Migrant Farmworkers Project claim the workers are often subject to discrimination and do not have the same rights as other migrants, such as the opportunity to become permanent residents.
“They’re invisible,” said Illas. “They’re the poorest of the poorest.”
The solution? Illas wants to “connect our local population and temporary population and get them to know one another.” To that end, he wants people to come to the centre and volunteer and “connect with your neighbours.”
The Migrant Farmworkers Project also plans to throw a party in August where people can share food, listen to live music and “meet your neighbours.”
Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News