Min Sook Lee’s latest film, Migrant Dreams, will make you think twice about picking up those ripe-looking “grown in Ontario” tomatoes at your local supermarket. The film is a no-holds-barred look into the temporary foreign workers who work in the tomato, cucumber and pepper greenhouses of Leamington, Ontario near the border town of Windsor.
The film focuses on a group of Indonesian women who are part of Ontario’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program, as discussed in the film, is an initiative of the federal government that has become privatised and turned into a system that demeans newly arrived immigrants. It treats them like human capital utilised for the sole, machine-like purpose of picking fruits and vegetables on a massive, overworked scale. Min Sook sees this is as a part of a growing apartheid economy. “We have greenhouses that are ten football fields in size with hundreds of workers; a computerised system; and these greenhouses are operating 24/7 so the labor force is needed 24/7.”
With help from the activist organization Justice for Migrant Workers, Lee gains incredible access to these Indonesian women’s stories. She also interviews Jamaican migrant workers who tried to speak out about the toxic chemicals used in the greenhouses, after one of them developed a respiratory illness. The worker was eventually fired from his position for speaking out about the unjust conditions. “It’s not just women from Indonesia,” says Min Sook, “it’s workers from over 80 countries that are coming to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”
Migrant Dreams provides a means to expose the migrant workers tragic situation and share their story with communities across Canada and the world. “I think the film is a direct means of resistance and a call to action,” says Min Sook. “The workers who participated in the film did so knowingly. They stuck their necks out to talk about their experiences because they are sick of being ripped off and abused and they recognise that there are very limited channels for speaking out. They are using documentary film as a tool for social change, and they are doing so with great risk to their own personal safety, and their own livelihood.”
A heartbreaking scene in the film shows activist Evelyn Encalada meeting up with two of the workers in a parking lot of the local supermarket because they fear that being seen with an activist near their home will alert the attention of the employer. Min Sook says the help of activists like Evelyn and groups like Justice for Migrant Workers was indispensible for the project. “Documentary is just part of the conversation,” she says.
“Before you come into the story with your camera and after you leave, the realities continue. They don’t stop when the credits roll. My commitment as a filmmaker is to try and have this film used as part of the ongoing dialogue and discussion around temporary foreign workers, the way in which the program operates, while continuing to advocate for the rights of migrant workers in Canada.”
Like any informed activist, Min Sook Lee knows the history of the field she is documenting. She talks passionately about Canada’s agricultural visa programs and how they’ve changed drastically over the years to accommodate industrialised, large-scale factory farming. The agricultural worker visa program was introduced in 1966, primarily to bring in farm workers from Jamaica, the Caribbean states, and Mexico. “But farm work has changed dramatically since the 1960’s,” Min Sook says. “Food production in this country has become largely industrialised and it’s no longer a small-scale farm with a small family and a little plot of land with sunshine and piggies rolling around in the mud… it doesn’t look like that anymore.” And while there are the exceptional organic family farms scattered throughout Ontario, we still get most of our fruits and vegetables from large scale, corporate-looking farms. Migrant laborers are a result of this new system, and their worth parallels the value we place on where our food comes from and how it is produced.
“The migrant labour programs are constructed so that low wage migrant workers are allowed entry in to this country, but they are tied to an employer,” says Min Sook. “So their labour mobility is constricted. And agricultural labor is one of the most dangerous worksites. Accidents and fatalities are very frequent, and living accommodations are frequently substandard. Their labour, their right to stay in the country is compromised, and oftentimes the response to any criticism by a worker is deportation. The tied nature of their employment status is a core, systemic tool used to control the workforce, to subdue any worker agency, and to silence dissent.”
Min Sook Lee has thought long and hard about the underlying reality that has allowed foreign agricultural workers to be exploited for so long in Canada. “Migrant labor programs draw attention to the reality that there are two tiered sets of rights in Canada: for citizens, and non citizens.” Min Sook says, “And they actively construct a labour apartheid in our state. That needs to be discussed. I think migrant labour programs in our country operate, frankly, with a lot of invisibility. The issues remain on the margins and are not discussed, not transparently debated.”
Min Sook was recently honoured by Cinema Politica with the second Alanis Obomsawin Award for Commitment to Community and Resistance. She is committed to rethinking Canada, and her film gives us a blueprint for doing so.
“It’s actually much more useful for us to recognise the common cause that Canadians have with migrant workers. We are in the same economy, and their labour supports the growth of our economy,” says Min Sook Lee.
“I think when we wave our national flag, we must do so with some criticality, intentionality and thought. As much as Canada’s history has been problematic and steeped with political realities that have created systemic inequities, we are not doomed to perpetuate that into our futures. I think an honest reflection of the migrant worker program allows us to reimagine Canada.”
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.