Peruvian lives on Canada’s conscience

"Pilgrimage to Freedom," a 12-hour march organized by migrant workers and J4MW in 2009. Photographer: Gerardo CorreaAs the Peruvian immigrant community in Kitchener-Waterloo — and families at home in Peru — mourn the loss of 11 of their own in a deadly highway crash in rural Ontario on February 6, at least one Toronto daily newspaper two days later prioritized instead the highway death a single girl (a white, 19-year-old aspiring model), pushing the 11 Peruvian lives to page eight.

This is but a symptom of a larger problem that suggests that white/Canadian lives are more valuable than their non-white/non-Canadian counterparts.

Consider the circumstances: Monday’s crash, which occurred as the Peruvian workers were returning home in a 15-passenger van from work on an Ontario chicken farm, killed 11 passengers and left the remaining three in critical condition. These kinds of vans are cheap and usually carry more workers than would a more expensive truck or SUV. They have also been described as “death traps” and have been investigated and banned in several states and provinces for failing to meet safety standards. Not surprisingly, Ontario police blamed the accident on “driver error” but made no mention of the fact that the vans are designed to carry cargo, not people — a telling indication of the way migrant workers are viewed in rural Ontario.

The priorities reflected in the Metro News piece are rooted in Canadian government policy that prioritizes the interests of business over the lives of people, especially people of colour in or from foreign countries.

To their credit, the Canadian media has picked up on the issue of the safety of the vans. The Toronto Star ran a short op-ed on Wednesday, February 8 insisting that there be an investigation into the use of these vans on Canadian roads. While a good starting point, the piece got muddled in safety assessments and missed the larger point: that it is not Canadian workers but foreign migrants — coaxed into leaving their homes to work temporarily in Canada because they will accept low wages and use few public services — who are being placed in these vehicles whose safe usage has yet to be determined.

This is no coincidence. Targeted by employers on the basis of their weak economic and social positions, migrant workers in Canada are consistently placed in unsafe conditions that lead to injury, disease, and death. South Asian workers brought to B.C. to pick berries are routinely paid less than minimum wage and are crammed into ramshackle housing without toilet and plumbing facilities, ventilation, or heating. Medical journals have repeatedly noted that the backbreaking labour, long hours, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, and repeated exposure to pesticides and other chemical agents for workers as young as 12 means that up to 85 per cent of migrant workers in Canada suffer from serious injuries and illness, from musculoskeletal destruction to waterborne intestinal disease.

In fact, Monday’s accident wasn’t the first time that migrant workers have been killed in Canada while crowded into the same cargo vans in which 11 people were killed. A similar crash in 2004 killed three and injured five people in Ontario, while another crash in B.C. in 2007 killed three workers.

Read more on Rabble

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