Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have been 13 Latin Americans — living in Canada, but with no real expectation of remaining here once their employment contract expired — riding in the van that was tragically struck by a truck last Monday in Hampstead. Instead, it could have been a bunch of teenagers from St. Marys and area, riding home dirty and exhausted, carrying $15 cheques for 14 hours of dusty, noisy work.
There are many adults in our community who remember those days: “chicken catching” crews, gathered together by some fast-talking salesman — perhaps someone well-known in the community, but a fast-talking salesman nonetheless — and promised easy wages and a day away from the doldrums of day-to-day life.
The work, it seems, was always considerably more arduous and sinus-thickening than advertised. But, for many years, it was always possible to gather the crews.
Not any more. Chicken catching (for vaccinations; de-beaking, etc.) in Ontario has become the exclusive territory of so-called “migrant workers,” granted status under a government program to work here for a term. Unlike a program also in place for so-called “domestic workers,” there’s no promise of immigrant status at the end. Given the absence of this end-of-term pay-off, and given there are still chicken-catching crews visiting Ontario’s farms, the financial reward of the job itself must be enough to keep people applying. If the pay was insufficient to keep these workers’ family members fed, clothed, and educated back in Peru, surely they would find other options.
Somewhere along the line, however, chicken catching ceased to be an option for rural Ontario’s teenagers. Did it become too dangerous? Unhealthy? Too little pay?
One trend in agriculture that has unfolded simultaneously is the specialization of farms, and the concentration of livestock populations into larger barns. In poultry, barns are fewer and farther between, and the number of birds to be vaccinated on each visit has generally increased dramatically compared to 20 years ago.
When the last of the local crews were still being rounded up, they had to travel further and further — to barns owned by people they’d never meet again — to earn their $15. No longer were they toiling for someone whose daughter they might know from school, or a member of the same service club as their father. They had no reason to impress the farmer with their work ethic.
For the same reasons, there was no incentive for the farmer — beyond his own morality — to treat the chicken catchers with an elevated level of respect.
Last week’s accident, while not necessarily tied to the victims’ employment status, has spurred examination of the migrant worker program. If it is to survive, the people who benefit from it — farmers; recruiters — would be well-advised to keep in mind those teenaged crews of old.
Peru is a distant land. But we live in a global society. And remember: when local teenaged chicken catchers no longer felt like they were part of a community — valued for their work; people who were related to somebody the farmer knew — they stopped coming.