Topics: Justice | Human Rights

The life and death of an undocumented construction worker

Fearing deportation, Alvaro Vargas Fonseca lived under the radar in Canada. When he died, his family in Costa Rica struggled to find answers.

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(Illustration: Steven P. Hughes)

One morning in February 2008, the telephone rang insistently in a small bungalow in San Vito, a city in southern Costa Rica. Oscar Vargas Fonseca hurried to answer it. “I am calling from Toronto,” said the person on the other end in Spanish. “Are you prepared to receive bad news?” Pause. “Alvaro had an accident at work today, and now he is dead.”

Hearing about his brother, Oscar was speechless. He just stood there, the black telephone receiver pressed to his ear. He looked over at his parents and siblings, who had gathered in the living room for coffee, and he wondered if he had fallen victim to a prank call. He had not. Alvaro Vargas Fonseca’s father, Evelio, ran out of the house in a flood of tears.

Just a few hours earlier, Alvaro Vargas Fonseca and his supervisor were heading to Barbara Ann Court in Mississauga, Ont., where they were building new homes. They made their usual stop at a Tim Hortons drive-thru. By 8 a.m., Vargas Fonseca had already begun his carpentry work on an unfinished house. A short while later, the 38-year-old was dead. 

With a Toronto Metropass and $7.06 in his pockets, Vargas Fonseca died as an undocumented worker in a country that had only been his home for a few years. He didn’t have any family here. He wasn’t a citizen or a landed immigrant. He didn’t have a work visa and wasn’t considered a refugee. Without status, he lived and worked under the radar, invisible to authorities, while sending home as much money as possible to support his family and three children. 

“Living in Canada without authorized immigration status made [Vargas Fonseca] precarious in other ways,” says Luin Goldring, a York University sociology professor who researches undocumented workers. “His employment was precarious; he was deportable; he couldn’t complain about dangerous work. And then, when he died, he continued to be precarious, so his precarity continued after his death.”

In Canada, workers like Vargas Fonseca can become undocumented in a variety of ways. They may arrive here from another country with a temporary visa but stay after it expires. Others lose their immigration status, and some don’t follow orders to leave the country. They quietly go about their daily lives, trying to stay undetected by the government. So it’s impossible to know exactly how many live here in Canada, but estimates range between 200,000 and half a million. 

Together, they form an intrinsic part of the national economy, generally filling jobs many Canadians don’t want. They prepare and serve food, clean washrooms, care for children and the elderly, and build homes. Facing labour shortages, the construction industry across the country has become reliant on undocumented workers. At the time of Vargas Fonseca’s death, approximately 20,000 were building homes, condos and offices across the Greater Toronto Area alone.

Because of their precarious legal status, these workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, often working for low wages, sometimes under poor and dangerous conditions, with little access to legal protection. If tragedy strikes, it can be nearly impossible for relatives to gain information about their loved one. More than 12 years have passed since Vargas Fonseca’s death, for example, and his family still doesn’t know exactly how he died or even where to search for answers.

More on Broadview: Undocumented people share how they live outside the system

Alvaro Vargas Fonseca, the second of eight children, had been born and raised in the coffee fields of Costa Rica, one of the most successful coffee-producing countries in the world. From the age of 12, he worked alongside his father on their small family farm. But with the global crash of coffee bean prices in the early 1990s, the family struggled to afford enough food to eat. Vargas Fonseca learned about work opportunities in the United States and decided to join several farmers on a long and arduous journey — by bus, by freight train and by foot — to cross the Mexico–U.S. border in 1991. 

His original plan was to work in the United States temporarily, just until the economic situation improved at home. But as coffee prices kept dropping, Vargas Fonseca ended up travelling twice between Costa Rica and the States, where he worked as an undocumented dishwasher in an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. He picked up as many extra shifts as he could and sent home most of his wages. After his father was diagnosed with cancer, he wanted to earn enough so Evelio wouldn’t have to work in the fields anymore.

In the late ’90s, Vargas Fonseca returned home because he was worried about Evelio’s health. He found that his family still couldn’t make ends meet. After a few years, he arranged to leave yet again in search of work, but he didn’t want to go back to the United States. He had always felt lonely there and was afraid of the difficulties crossing the border with Mexico. On his last voyage, he had joined some 100 coffee growers on their trip north, but he was one of the few to safely make it. The rest simply vanished en route. So this time, Vargas Fonseca had a new destination in mind: Canada. 

As a coffee farmer, Vargas Fonseca could not apply for immigration status under Canadian law. His trade wasn’t on the list of desirable, high-skilled occupations. He also didn’t qualify as a refugee. So in March 2004, Vargas Fonseca set out to travel from Costa Rica to Canada as a visitor (at the time, Costa Ricans did not require visas). 

It was his first trip on an airplane, and he arrived at Pearson International Airport just in time for Toronto’s construction boom. Soon after, he landed a job as a house framer even though he knew nothing about construction or framing floors and walls.

Vargas Fonseca learned on the job, working long hours, often seven days a week. He wasn’t always paid on time and sometimes his employer missed a paycheque, but he didn’t speak up. He couldn’t afford to. “While in theory undocumented workers may be protected by the same labour and employment laws afforded to Canadians, their lack of legal status often prevents them from voicing complaints about work conditions,” says Amar Bhatia, associate law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, at York University in Toronto. “They fear that a complaint could lead to reprisals from their employers or recruiters and that discovery of their lack of status could ultimately lead to their detention and deportation.”

He wasn’t always paid on time and sometimes his employer missed a paycheque, but he didn’t speak up. He couldn’t afford to.

Still, Vargas Fonseca considered himself lucky. He had steady work and rented a basement room in a west-end Toronto house, furnished with hand-me-downs, for just $400 a month. His landlord, Cristina Carballo, was the sister of an acquaintance. (As it turns out, he was the one who informed the family about Vargas Fonseca’s death.) 

Carballo’s brother and Vargas Fonseca met in 2006 in the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont., where Vargas Fonseca landed after getting into a bar fight with someone who, he claimed, had threatened to report him to Canadian immigration. According to Carballo, Vargas Fonseca was arrested because he didn’t have a work permit.

At her brother’s request, Carballo agreed to help Vargas Fonseca, bailing him out and providing him with a place to live. She had come to Canada almost 20 years before from El Salvador and knew how hard it was to be in a new country without family. But she never imagined she’d one day get a phone call from the police, asking her to come to Mississauga’s Credit Valley Hospital. 

She then took on the responsibility of getting Vargas Fonseca’s remains to Costa Rica. The cost was steep: at least $10,000 — more than she could afford. Carballo made phone calls to Vargas Fonseca’s devastated parents in San Vito, asking them what they wanted her to do. Since the news, his father had sunk into a depression, often disappearing into the fields. The family could not foot the bill either. It was Vargas Fonseca, after all, who had been keeping them afloat. 

To reduce the transportation cost, someone offered to have Vargas Fonseca’s remains cremated. His mother, Rosa María, almost fainted. She asked — begged — not to turn his body into ashes. “For the love of God, please don’t burn my son!” Rosa María recalls pleading, her voice cracking. “I want to see his face one last time.”

Somehow, Vargas Fonseca’s case caught the attention of the media. On March 6, 2008, the Globe and Mail ran a story, prompting an outpouring of support. A courier company offered to fly Vargas Fonseca’s body home, the newspaper reported the following day. A Thornhill, Ont., woman also came forward with a promise to send a monthly donation to his children, and an account was set up in Vargas Fonseca’s name at the Portuguese Canadian Credit Union to collect donations. 

Vargas Fonseca’s parents and siblings weren’t aware of the articles, the generous promises of strangers or the funds raised. So they didn’t claim the money. (To further complicate matters, the credit union that held the donations was liquidated in April 2009, and Vargas Fonseca didn’t have a will.) Instead, Vargas Fonseca’s siblings mobilized to seek donations in San Vito to try to get their brother home. Moved by the family’s ordeal, the television network Repretel covered the story, and the local Red Cross organized fundraising events. 

But then came the suspicion. Two weeks had elapsed since Vargas Fonseca’s death, and his body had not yet arrived. Rosa María remembers a representative from the Red Cross paying the family a visit, expressing his concerns about gossip he had heard around town. He told her people wanted to know where the body was. Worse still, they wondered if Vargas Fonseca was even dead. It pained Rosa María that the memory of her son was now being disgraced.

The confusion and rumours were finally quelled. On March 20, 2008, 24 days after his death, Vargas Fonseca’s body landed in Costa Rica. (The family still doesn’t know how the trip was funded, and his mother has no idea whom to thank.) The town’s donations covered the ground transportation and funeral costs at home. The next morning, dressed in a white shirt and a black suit (donated by a friend of Carballo’s), Vargas Fonseca’s body was buried in San Vito, after a Good Friday prayer. 

(Illustration: Steven P. Hughes)

Today, the exact circumstances of Vargas Fonseca’s death remain unknown. Shortly after the funeral, the family received his preliminary medical certificate of death, which notes “no anatomic cause of death,” meaning the cause was undetermined. However, rumours stirred up once again. A neighbour in San Vito told Rosa María that he had been shot. One of his co-workers told the family he had died of a heart attack in his car before arriving at work. Yet another reported that Vargas Fonseca had died in his arms at the construction site, insinuating that he had been electrocuted. For 10 years, that’s all they knew.

In March 2018, Juan Carranza, a Toronto civil litigation lawyer of Salvadoran origin who has worked in immigration, stepped in to represent the family pro bono. After graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School, Carranza became one of the first Central Americans to be called to the Law Society of Upper Canada. He has won awards and much recognition for his volunteer work within the Hispanic community. When he learned about Vargas Fonseca’s case, he agreed to help the family get the answers they needed. 

Carranza tried to obtain information by seeking Vargas Fonseca’s employment records through Local 183 of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). The Globe article had mentioned that  LIUNA made a substantial donation to the fundraising efforts. Even though he was undocumented, Vargas Fonseca may have been covered by the union. So Carranza hoped to find more information about his employer and any investigation into his death. In response to multiple requests, however, LIUNA sent Carranza a letter stating that it requires an advance payment of $500 — with no guarantee of being able to produce documents. 

The lawyer also filed multiple freedom of information requests. One was for the notes from the Peel police officers who investigated the scene where he died. In response, Carranza received some redacted, handwritten annotations that didn’t reveal much. Meanwhile, Credit Valley Hospital, where Vargas Fonseca was purportedly pronounced dead, stated that it did not have any medical records related to him. The Ministry of Labour hasn’t yet given Carranza any information or documents.

The Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario was more helpful, releasing three key documents: the coroner’s investigation statement, the report of post-mortem examination and a forensic toxicologist’s report. Ultimately, the coroner states that Vargas Fonseca had a heart condition and concludes that he died of natural causes. “It is likely this man died of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia due to underlying myocarditis,” reads the report. A note, added by the regional supervising coroner, drives that point home: “Electrical inspection did not demonstrate any concerns of electrocution. As the death was Natural and not work related an inquest will not be undertaken.”

“These are non-status people who are the most precarious in the workplace, and those deaths should mean something.”

Chris Ramsaroop

The family was shocked. Vargas Fonseca had never mentioned having any medical concerns. They wonder if he even knew he had myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The post-mortem examination reveals that the inflammation of his “myocardium [was] very focal and involve[d] only a very small proportion of the heart.” 

A discrepancy in these records made them wonder if electrocution was a possible cause. The coroner’s investigation statement notes the presence of a circular electrical saw with a frayed cord on the second floor where he was found. But the report of post-mortem examination states, “No power tools [were] in the room where he collapsed ruling out a possibility of electrocution.” They have no idea which report is accurate.

Another coroner from Ontario (who has asked to remain anonymous) took a look at the documents. In his opinion, Vargas Fonseca’s death was probably natural even though myocarditis rarely results in sudden death. “Although low-level [electrocution] is possible, it is also very unlikely,” he says. “And second, that unlikelihood becomes even more unlikely because we have a full forensic autopsy showing myocarditis.” 

The coroner also believes Vargas Fonseca knew about his condition as he would have experienced symptoms, such as chest pain. “Because [Vargas Fonseca] was in such a situation where he felt that he had to keep his head low, this poor gentleman…probably purposefully, just out of fear, did not seek out medical attention early enough to prevent this [death] from happening,” he says.

In Canada, a job in construction comes with plenty of hazards. When a death occurs on a construction site, inquests are mandatory in Ontario regardless of the immigration status of the deceased. But since Vargas Fonseca’s death was ruled “natural,” there was no inquest.

Chris Ramsaroop, co-founder of Justice for Migrant Workers, argues there ought to have been one. He believes all work deaths should be investigated, especially for undocumented workers. “These are non-status people who are the most precarious in the workplace, and those deaths should mean something,” he says. “If there’s a coroner’s inquest into the death of [Vargas Fonseca], then what this will do is lead to changes to improve conditions for all workers.”

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Traces of Vargas Fonseca’s generosity are scattered throughout the home where he grew up. As she brews coffee, Rosa María recalls how her son bought her first refrigerator. A set of wedding photographs stowed away in a drawer shows various men standing proud. They are all wearing the same black suit, which Vargas Fonseca had purchased in the United States. “My brother had a [kind] heart,” Vargas Fonseca’s younger brother Elias says with a sad smile. “He wanted men in our community to have something decent to wear on their wedding day…myself included.” 

In anguish, his family has had to grapple with the mysteries surrounding Vargas Fonseca’s death. They never received condolences from his employer, let alone a formal acknowledgment of his death or even his final wages. Time, long distances, lack of transparency and language barriers all make it difficult for the family to get answers. 

In spite of all this, the family’s lawyer is determined to help Vargas Fonseca’s parents and siblings find out what happened. Perhaps, this information will help them start down a path of healing. “Alvaro was my rock; I still think of him every day,” says his mother. “I don’t want to die without knowing what truly happened to him.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Toronto-based writer Roxana Olivera researched this story under Osgoode Hall Law School’s journalist-in-residence fellowship program.

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  • says:

    Together, they form an intrinsic part of the national economy, generally filling jobs many Canadians don’t want. Facing labour shortages, the construction industry across the country has become reliant on undocumented workers. I believe these are not reasons for undocumented migrants.

    Sending home as much money as possible to support his family and three children. Working for low wages, sometimes under poor and dangerous conditions, with little access to legal protection. These are more likely the real reasons for undocumented migrants

    It takes stories like these to either enforce immigration laws and labour laws or to change them to suit migrant workers.