Evelyn Encalada Grez has worked transnationally with export-processing workers in Mexico and Central America and as lead travelling faculty teaching U.S. university students in over six countries. For three semesters, she was the Academic Director of an intensive social justice study abroad program in her city of birth, Valparaiso, Chile.

Labour Studies

Evelyn Encalada Grez brings 20 years labour organizing experience to SFU’s Labour Studies program

September 03, 2020

When Evelyn Encalada Grez was in high school she knew she wanted to be a changemaker, but she didn’t know how to begin. Now, Grez has amassed 20 years of experience as a community-labour organizer in Central America, Mexico and Canada, and she is keen to share her experience with SFU students when she joins the faculty of the Labour Studies program in fall 2020.

“What I want to bring to my students is hope with the strategies that I’ve seen firsthand, where communities come together in spite of all of the obstacles and repression,” Grez says. “I want to mentor them, to guide them in finding how and where they can situate themselves in this grand scheme and dream of social justice. That dream could be very different for all of us, but all of our imaginings are needed in this world more than ever.”

Grez credits serendipity for her academic career. As the first member of her family to go to university, her journey began as a young girl when her family fled Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile for asylum in Canada. In high school Grez became interested in social justice issues and began making connections between her life in Canada and inequality and injustice around the world.

“Questions arose that weren't answered in high school,” says Grez. “Such as, why is it that many people from the Global South are displaced? Why is it that we can’t live in the countries we were born in? Why is it that Indigenous peoples cannot live on their traditional land anymore?”

After high school, she took an internship with a trade union group based in Vancouver that sent her to work in Central America to support export-processing workers in maquilas and maquiladoras, the duty and tariff-free clothing factories of the region.

“I learned what organizing could look like in jurisdictions where unions could not function or were completely illegal,” she says. “I witnessed workers that were marginalized in the global economy coming together and coming up with new ways to resist, new ways to strengthen themselves.”

Professor Evelyn Encalada Grez’s research bridges grass-roots activism with academic scholarship. She has extensively documented the lives of Mexican migrant farmworker women who work and forge transnational livelihoods between rural Canada and rural Mexico.

Globalization turns the world upside down

After working in Central America, Grez became radicalized on her return to Canada in 2001 when the 3rd Summit of the Americas was held in Quebec City to negotiate free trade areas. Grez was among the 20,000 people from throughout the Americas that were there protesting the proposed agreement’s threats to workers’ rights.

“There was tear gas being thrown at us in the streets by police in riot gear,” she says. “I had to run and I thought, where am I? The North and the South had turned upside down. It was like I was in the streets of Santiago during the military dictatorship but I was really in Canada in Quebec City. I realized that I had a role in Canada: to challenge Canada's benevolent disguise.”

She signed on as a Spanish-English interpreter for a fact finding mission by a group of labour activists that were documenting abuses against migrant workers from Mexico in the greenhouses of Leamington, Ontario, known as the tomato capital of Canada.

“There are so many injustices when people who produce our food are being exploited this way,” she says. “I realized that I can’t be successful, I can't make it if our communities are held down in this manner.”

Evelyn Encalada Grez appeared and worked in “Migrant Dreams”, a documentary that follows the story of migrant workers who come to work in Ontario greenhouses as part of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Many are women recruited by brokers who illegally charge fees upwards of $7,000, with greenhouse owners complicit in the scam.

Justice for Migrant Workers

Grez responded by co-founding Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW), an award winning nonprofit collective that has advocated for the rights of migrant farmworkers in Canada for the past two decades.

“That's what guided me into my academic career: the importance of documenting how and where we work structures our whole lives, even the way that we feel and the options we have before us,” she says.

In today’s context, Grez points out that COVID-19 has been devastating to migrant workers, particularly in Ontario where overcrowding and inadequate housing at huge factory farms where led to outbreaks of the virus. As a community-engaged scholar, she aims to strengthen new networks that are being built among the farmworkers to survive this difficult time.

“Labour Studies has a lot to contribute to how we want to move forward beyond this pandemic,” she says. “This pandemic has also made me think about belonging again which has been a constant in my life. Where do I belong? I belong in those spaces in between. I think that a lot of our students also are in those spaces. They come from different ethnicities. They’re international students but they are also in Canada. I want to meet them all in those spaces in between. Those spaces are also beyond national borders and they should be spaces that also allow for more creativity, innovation and possibility because we’re not stuck with one way of being and living in this world.”