Nine of the ten farm workers killed in a tragic automobile accident near Hampstead, Ontario on February 6 came from Comas, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. They, and three others who survived crash, were in Canada as migrant farm workers because there is little chance in Comas of providing the necessities of life for their families. The 38-year-old Canadian driver of the truck that collided with the 15-passenger van carrying the Peruvians was also killed.
Peru in 1979
I spent nine months traveling in Latin America in 1978-79. I was in Peru for several weeks and spent some of that time with a small group of Canadians from Scarboro Missions. They were working in one of the poor communities stretched along about 25 kilometres of highway outside of Lima. Comas was one of them, built into the hills, which are dusty, parched and brown. These co-called barrios jovenes (young towns) were desperately poor and in many ways overwhelmingly depressing places. On the other hand, there was a great deal community spirit and a sense of solidarity among the people. I remember, in particular, being there for Mother’s Day in 1979 and experiencing the outpouring of emotion and respect that men expressed for their wives and mothers. It is those wives and mothers who are now mourning the men lost to the tragic accident in Ontario.
Comas, which had a population of 465,000 in 2005, is one of the largest of the new towns. They were populated almost exclusively by peasant farmers who migrated from the countryside in search of opportunity and in more recent years to escape revolutionary violence and counter-insurgency in the countryside.
No doubt much has changed in Comas since I was there in 1979. But it seems from the reports of Canadian journalists who have gone there following the accident in Ontario that much has also remains the same – the poverty and desperation, but also the solidarity.
Slow death in Peru
Here are the opening paragraphs from an article called Dying a Slow Death in Peru, which I wrote in June 1979. It was published at a time when the International Monetary Fund demanded a program of drastic cuts and austerity in return for allowing Peru to renegotiate its foreign debt.
‘Our situation as common people gets worse every day. Economic packages are forced on us and we are unfairly and mercilessly dismissed from jobs. We suffer from unemployment and its consequences such as malnutrition, sickness, nervous disorders, broken families, infant mortality and bodily weakness. Briefly, we are dying a slow death.‘
“These words are taken from a statement prepared earlier this year by Christian communities in a number of pueblos jovenes, the shanty towns that form a semi-circle around the land side of Lima.
“The people are desperate. That’s obvious even to a tourist who takes time to look around. In the few days I spent with Canadian religious and lay workers in one of the pueblos, I was startled by the number of people who died. Tuberculosis is one of the main killers, a result of the poor diets and crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
“On the 20-kilometre bus ride between downtown Lima and the last of the pueblos on one line, in the evenings I saw passengers, especially women, exhausted and trying to sleep in the crowded seats between stops.
“Many of the women work in town, selling everything imaginable in the streets: cigarettes, Chiclets, playing cards, clothing, pastry, even their own bodies. Others work as servants in the homes of the middle class and the wealthy. I heard of two women who travel from the pueblos to the far side of the city each day to work in homes. They earn 200 soles a day [90 cents American in 1979], pay most of that back for transport and spend two hours a day on the bus.
“Peru is in the depths of what seems like an impossible economic crisis, only partly of its own making. The situation is a case study of the price paid by the people of a country whose economy is controlled by the industrial nations of the Western world.”
Globalized migrant workers
I wrote this in 1979 when globalization as we know it today was in its early days. Today one of the remedies increasingly pursued for desperate situations such as these is for people to go abroad as migrant workers. Thousands of workers, such as the Peruvians killed and injured near Hampstead, come to Canada each year to perform seasonal labour, mainly in Ontario and British Columbia’s agriculture sector. Most come here under the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and often send money back home. They have few rights in this country and when their work ends, or if they are injured on the job, they are sent away.
One of the men who died in the Hampstead crash was Jose Mercedes Valdiviezo Taboada, who had been working at MARC Poultry near Hampstead since 2008. He sent money home regularly but had been back to visit only once, in 2010. On February 3, his 24-year-old son Fernando was among the small group of men who flew from Lima to Canada to join the workforce at the poultry farm. Three days later both father and son died in the crash.
Another of the men who died was Enrique Arturo Arenaza Leon, a former soccer star with the Alliance Lima soccer club. His wife Patricia, who says she must now be both father and mother to their children, wonders if the family will receive any insurance as a result of his death. No one seems to know.
Family Support Fund
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) have created a Migrant Workers Family Support Fund. All money collected will be donated to the families of the dead or injured workers, including that of the driver of the truck involved in the accident.
Donations can be made through most financial institutions by transferring a donation to the Fund’s account:
The Migrant Workers Family Support Fund
TD Canada Trust
Account # 5221618
Transit # 1864
A special memorial Facebook page has also been set up to commemorate the lives of these workers.