Documentary review: Migrant Dreams

A worker in a jumpsuit and an orange hard hat repairs a sidewalk. Pixabay

Examining the world of migrant workers

Set mainly in Leamington, Ont., Migrant Dreams follows the journey of Nanik as one of the many Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) migrants from Indonesia. Like many immigrants, she has temporarily left her home country to work for a company in Ontario. In the documentary, she is halfway through her two-year contract in working with one of the corporately owned greenhouses.

According to the federal government website, the (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign workers “to fill temporary jobs when qualified Canadians are not available.” Many of these workers come from abroad to fill temporary jobs that are not usually desirable for Canadian citizens to take on, such as working in minimum-wage paying greenhouse jobs. There was and still is a lot of controversy about this program. This film takes a deeper look at the program through the lens of migrant workers.

When I read the synopsis on the Mackenzie Art Gallery exhibit website, it piqued my interest. The documentary was originally released in Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival in 2016.

When I learned that Emmy award-winning producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson (Herman’s House, 2012), I knew it would be a well-researched and well-produced film. Herman’s House was about how African-American men made up the majority of solitary confinement inmates in American, in particular one man named Herman Wallace, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white man, and his relationship (which started with writing letters) with artist Jackie Sumell. In the film she asks Wallace, who had at that point served more than 40 years, what his ideal house would look like if he were released from jail. Valencia-Svensson’s films have strong social justice themes; Migrant Dreams was no exception. As a half-Filipina, half-Swedish-American woman, Valencia-Svensson has focused on telling the stories of minority women.

Director Min Sook Lee (El Contrato, Hogtown, Tiger Spirit) exposes the deplorable working and living conditions the migrants must endure as temporary foreign workers. Migrant Dreams was not Lee’s first film on this topic so she is no stranger to controversy. In 2000, she produced her first documentary about the treatment of migrant workers. She was threatened with a million dollar libel suit. Lee understood the high stakes involved in making Migrant Dreams.

But despite these risks, Lee says the migrant workers were willing to share their stories for a “mix of personal and political reasons.”

It was an eye-opener to witness first-hand how poorly the migrants are treated and left to their own to fend for themselves. It also challenged the notion that the TFW are stealing desirable jobs from Canadians.

Cathy, a community activist, is trying to help the migrants learn about their basic labour and human rights as employees in Canada. Working alongside her are Evelyn and Chris, who are members of the Justice for Migrant Workers organization. The advocates must try to reassure the migrants that they can effect change if they band together and speak up against these unjust labour practices at their respective workplaces. But even though advocates tell the migrants they can and should hold their employers and recruiters to account, the migrants are hesitant because they have witnessed those who have spoken up being fired without just cause.

Passionate justice and advocate workers step in to try to speak up for the migrants to change their conditions. The first scene takes place in a Superstore parking lot where Evelyn has agreed to meet with two migrant women, including Nanik. They meet there because it’s one of the “safe” places to meet in town that is free from surveillance of migrant employers. This scene sets the tone that migrants are careful what they say and what they do as they live in fear of doing something wrong that could warrant them being fired. 

The migrants are expected to pay exorbitant fees to their recruiters in addition to rent and telephone costs that are taken out of their meager wages. Because migrants do not know their rights as workers in Canada, they do not question the fees their recruiters and employers charge. Migrants are afraid that if they do not comply, they will be deported and left with a bigger debt than what they started with. Most migrants send most of the little money that they have left to their families back home.

Migrants are at the mercy of their employers and their recruiters, who collect high “fees” each pay period. In terms of housing, for example, up to 36 male migrants live in a warehouse-like shed. Another man complains of his place being cockroach-infested.

Migrants are extremely vulnerable to those in authority (or those who want to take advantage of them) because migrants don’t know the language, are newcomers to the country and are desperate to support their families back home. When migrant workers wanted to speak up for better working conditions, they often stay silent because they fear being reprimanded, losing their job and ultimately being deported. Advocates try their best to coach the migrants to stand up to their illegal practices of their employers. But usually temporary foreign workers did not perceive themselves as established or worthy enough to be bold and stand up for their rights. These struggles humanize the migrants who are treated with little dignity or value by their employers.

Another theme of the film is the isolation and lack of support migrants experience at work. The workers form a supportive community and become like a family. There’s even a budding romance between a Muslim and Hindu woman (Rhawi and Dwipwa) – a relationship that would have been forbidden in their respective countries. 

The film includes broadcast news media reports and talk show callers about the TFWP to reflect the public’s views, often that reflect the NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) attitude and show a resentment of migrant workers “taking away” jobs from Canadians. I had heard about the TFWP in news reports, but hadn’t formed much of an opinion about the topic.

Migrant Dreams draws the viewer into the TFW world to underscore the need for more support for migrant workers so they aren’t, nor shouldn’t, be treated like second-class citizens.

To view the documentary, go to

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