Racism in the News: Response to Missing Mexican Migrant Workers Articles

During the week of July 20, 2015, several news sources, including Castanet Media, the CBC, HuffingtonPost, Vancouver Sun, and KelownaNow, published stories about four Mexican farmworkers who had not been seen since late June 2015.

We, the undersigned, are outraged at the sensational and overtly racist coverage of this ‘story’, which reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Mexicans as criminals. The inclusion of mug-shot like photos of two of the men in select articles, the emphasis on the men’s temporary and foreign statuses, as well as the statement that both Canadian Border Services Agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security had been alerted (Castanet) to the situation “to track” (VancouverSun) the group, actively frame Mexican migrants as constituting security threats and public menaces to both Canada and the United States. Ultimately, the suggestion that these men may do something illegal, particularly when no criminal act has been committed, reflects the racist biases of these news outlets.

Some 1,500 migrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean are employed on Okanagan farms each year under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). As has been widely reported by Canadian news agencies and well-documented by advocacy groups, migrant farm workers constitute a highly vulnerable labour force. They often endure sub-standard on-farm housing, workplace harassment, and unsafe working conditions, in addition to cultural, linguistic, and geographic isolation. Their contracts tie them to work only on SAWP-approved farms, and they must live in housing provided by their employers, making them a bonded workforce with little recourse in the face poor working and living conditions. They return to Canada year after year with no path to permanent residency.

Despite the many well-known issues with this program, none of these articles provide any context with regard to the details of these men’s disappearances. Indeed, it appears that the only interviews conducted were with the RCMP. In this case, the news outlets covering the story of the missing migrant workers have engaged in both irresponsible, and reckless, journalistic practice by making unconfirmed inferences about the movements and motivations of the missing men. Furthermore, by also publishing these men’s passport and driver’s licence numbers, the Castanet article represents a very serious breach of their privacy and a violation of the Personal Information Protection Act.

The four men in question came to Canada under the SAWP on June 16th, 2015, to work on an orchard in Vernon, BC. In contrast to what was implied in the articles, these four men, and indeed any SAWP worker, do not require their employer’s permission to leave the farm. As their visas are valid until December 15th, 2015, they are legally entitled to reside and travel within Canada. Therefore, as no criminal activity has occurred, we ask—why was this story deemed worthy of police investigation or publication by any media sources? Further, not one of the news sources that chose to run this story included any reference to the underlying reasons the four workers might have chosen to leave this farm.

Clearly, this is not your typical missing persons story. First, its publication comes nearly a month following these men’s disappearance. Second, neither physical descriptions nor other characteristics are included to ensure that they are found safely as in other missing persons reports. In our view, it is careless, as well as shameful, that the news outlets in question opted to dramatize these individuals’ absence from work instead of emphasizing their personal safety. With this in mind, we can only conclude that the purpose of these stories is not concern for their wellbeing or to assist the public in identifying the individuals. It is a call to the community to find fugitives, not missing people.

Criminalizing precarious migrant workers in such a manner is unfair and dangerous. We demand that these news agencies retract or revise the articles in question and issue a public apology to the four men involved and to the Mexican migrant community at large.

Signed:

Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA)
Migrant Workers Dignity Association (MWDA)
No One Is Illegal
Justicia for Migrant Workers
Agricultural Workers Alliance

Articles in question:

CBC http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/rcmp-search-for-four-mexican-workers-last-seen-in-north-okanagan-1.3162139

Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/07/21/mounties-search-for-four-_n_7841256.html

Castanet http://www.castanet.net/news/Vernon/144469/Foreign-farm-workers-AWOL

KelownaNow https://www.kelownanow.com/watercooler/news/news/Central_Okanagan/15/07/21/Okanagan_RCMP_Looking_for_Missing_Migrant_Workers (RETRACTED JULY 24, 2015)

Vancouver Sun: http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Mounties+search+four+Mexican+workers+last+seen+north+Okanagan/11231261/story.html