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A Costly Commute

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Issue: 56 Section: Agriculture Geography: Ontario, Quebec Topics: migration, temporary foreign workers

January 7, 2009

A Costly Commute

Foreign migrant workers provide long hours of cheap labour on Canadian farms

by Veronica Islas

More than 156,000 seasonal workers will come to work in the horticulture and fruit and vegetable sectors of Canada's agricultural industry in the coming year. For the workers, who live on farms in quarters such as the one pictured here, the price of employment is high, and the pleasures and freedoms are few. Photo: Daniella Guerrero

MONTREAL, QUEBEC–Don Jorge* stands outside the St Joseph Oratory, looking at the Montreal landscape in awe.

Don Jorge is a peasant farmer from a small town in Central Mexico.

Every summer he comes to Canada to work for six months on a farm close to Montreal. He has been working that farm for the last 14 years.

Even though he comes every year, he doesn't know Montreal or its surroundings. His knowledge of Canada and Quebec is confined to the fields that he harvests, the IGA where he shops for his weekly groceries and Montreal's St Joseph Oratory – where agricultural workers go to mass once a year.

He cannot leave the farm except for Sunday afternoons, and his only human contact is with other farm workers like himself and with his foreman.

Don Jorge lives and works in Les Fermes du Soleil, a farm owned by the ex-Quebec MNA André Chenail. Don Jorge says Chenail does not really take care of the farm business anymore, leaving day-to-day operations to his family instead. Chenail’s retirement was good news for the workers.

"He used to ‘tabernacle’ us all the time.” Tabernacle – the receptacle for the sacrament in Catholic churches – is used in Quebec an insult. “We were not treated as people. It is as though he thought we were animals," Jorge says, looking at his hands, calloused and roughened by farm work.

Don Jorge is part of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP), a Canadian federal program that brings migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean to work in the agricultural sector every summer.

The CSAWP began as a pilot project with Jamaica in 1966, when 264 Jamaican workers came to Ontario to harvest tobacco. The first Mexican workers arrived in Canada in 1974 after Mexico and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding.

The Mexican government plays a double role in this arrangement: it makes sure the program works smoothly, and it also functions as the representative of migrant agricultural Mexican workers in Canada.

For Caribbean workers, the program is run jointly with the governments of the participating Caribbean states, which recruit workers and appoint representatives in Canada to assist in the program’s operations. Workers come from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Monserrat).

For Guatemalan workers, the project was established in 2003 through an agreement with FERME (Foundation of Recruiting Enterprises of Foreign Agricultural Labor), which also lobbies the Canadian government for Canadian farm owners, under the supervision of the Department of Human Resources Development of Canada.

According to the Canadian United Farm and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), 20,274 migrant workers came to Canada in 2005: 11,798 came from Mexico and 5,916 from Jamaica; the rest came from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). In 2004, fewer than three per cent of participants in this program were women. In 2009, the number of migrant workers in Canada is expected to be over 156,000.

Seasonal workers like Don Jorge come to work in the horticulture and fruit and vegetable sectors. Most workers (nearly 16,500) are employed in Ontario; Quebec follows suit with 2,670 seasonal workers.

The temporary workers visa allows them to work only on a specified farm and for a limited period of time. Mexicans and Jamaicans can stay for a maximum of eight months.

Workers live in housing provided by the employer and are not allowed to spend the night outside the quarters. Employers are required to cover certain costs (which vary depending on the nationality of the worker), to ensure that the employee is covered by workers’ compensation and under health insurance, and to sign a contract with the worker.

"The Guatemalan workers pay $35 per week for their lodging but the farm owners pay for their plane ticket. Mexican workers pay for half their plane ticket (up to $550) but they don't pay lodging," says Edgardo Flores Rivas, General Consul of Mexico in Montreal.

Most workers are married with children, which ensures they have an "anchor" back home, preventing them from staying in Canada after their work term. They have health and labor insurance while in Canada, and when they fall ill their employers must take them to a doctor. Under the rules of the program, a worker cannot be repatriated due to illness.

Don Jorge says, however, that this is not always the case. He recounts an incident that happened during his first years in Canada.

"We were working in the fields even though they had announced a severe storm. When the storm hit, it hit hard. We had a bunch of boxes full of produce stacked up. They were knocked down by the wind and they were going to fall over a Quebecker. A young Mexican jumped in, risking his life. He was hit here and there, and afterward he was suffering from intense shock and trauma. He couldn't work and asked to see a doctor, and the patron” – the boss – “refused. Two days later, while we were all in the fields, they tried to repatriate him. But the young man left a message for his roommate and that's how we found out. They never thought we would find out," he says.

Don Jorge says the farm workers decided to take action. After lunch, they all refused to go to work. When Chenail found out about the strike he went to the workers’ quarters and threatened to send them all back to Mexico if they refused to go to the fields. The workers called the Mexican Consulate for support, but were baffled when Fanny Carranza, a Consulate staff member, told them to get back to work instead of looking for trouble.

But the workers refused, saying they would rather return to Mexico than allow such injustice to occur. The young man finally received medical attention and worked the Canadian fields that summer. He wasn't offered a job the next year.

Andrea Galvez works at a Temporary Workers Support Center (Centro de Apoyo) in St. Remi, Qc. She cites numerous problems that allow for worker abuse in the program.

"The workers sometimes work 14 hours per day. They don't get a break. They are afraid to complain because they fear they will be sent home," she says.

The majority of workers want to work as many hours as possible to maximize their earnings, since they have to cover for the costs of coming to Canada in the first place. No matter how many hours per day they work, migrant workers do not get paid overtime.

"What they earn is what the Canadian government establishes as the minimum wage for agricultural workers. People and media ask why they earn so little. We can't modify Canadian law. Those who come know this is how it is," says Flores Rivas.

"[The government omitted overtime pay] because they wanted to protect small family farms. The problem is that now agriculture is industrial, not family owned," says Galvez.

For René Mantha, General Director of FERME, low wages are essential to stay competitive in the global economy.

"They can’t be paid time and a half. Let’s use the lettuce harvest as an example. If workers are being paid too much the lettuce will be more expensive to compensate for the higher wages. If the lettuce doesn’t sell because it is too expensive we will not be able to hire any workers later. You see, we are in a global economy," he says.

Furthermore, a survey in the Niagara region showed that Canadian farm workers' hourly rates increased nine to 14 per cent over the past five years.

Bilateral government agreements call for a rest day after six days of work but employers can ask workers to volunteer to work their rest day during harvest periods.

"I wish they would work no more than 12 hours per day. It is what is stated in the contract," says Mantha. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the workers sometimes face longer working hours.

"They are not here for one week. They are here for six or seven months, so if they are exhausted I can tell you they will not be as productive," he says.

Flores Rivas agrees, saying they are not supposed to work more than 12 hours per day ever. "This has been decided to protect their health," he says.

In Canada, agriculture accounts for several times more work-related injuries and deaths than other industries. Risks stem from operating heavy machinery, applying pesticides, and working long hours during extreme heat. These dangers are compounded with the fact that most workers have inadequate training and sometimes do not understand safety instructions.

According to the North-South Institute, one in three workers from St. Lucia, Grenada and Mexico and one in five workers from Trinidad, Jamaica and Dominica report injuries or sickness due to the combination of long hours and exposure to chemicals and other hazards. Between one half and one third of sick and injured workers go to work rather than risk being considered unfit for work or losing wages.


Paulino* has worked Canadian fields for seven summers.

He has been a peasant all his life. “My father showed me how to clean the corn, the yucca, the camote since I was a little boy,” he says.

He appreciates his job, since he says it is hard to find a job back home, but he bitterly complains about the expenses involved in working here, and the lack of wage increases in spite of a rising cost of living in Mexico.

“In Mexico everything is very expensive. We want our salaries to increase but it’s not like anybody asks us what we want. We are illiterate; we have no say in the negotiations,” he says.

To begin with, while still at home, Mexican CSAWP hopefuls bear the cost of traveling to Mexico City five times or more to fulfill the bureaucratic requirements of the program.

To be eligible for the program, workers must pay for and pass the medical screenings required by the Canadian government. Canadian Immigration Health Services has approved very few clinics that carry out required medical screenings, and all of them are in Mexico City.

Workers must also travel to Mexico City to apply and pay for their work visa with the Canadian government.

"We cannot force the Canadian government to open offices elsewhere to give the visa. In the Third World they use their own standards. Not all clinics can pass the standard. The worker who comes knows he will have these expenses," says Flores Rivas, adding that the Mexican government has opened several offices in Mexico to make the Mexican paperwork easier for the workers.

Mexican workers pay half the cost – $550 – of their plane ticket. An economy class round trip from Mexico can be bought by the general public for as little as $600. However, Galvez says the tickets are bought through a travel agency owned by FERME, and she believes this is clearly a conflict of interest. Flores Rivas disagrees.

“The only way they can reserve the seats with the airlines is to reach an agreement with them,” he says. For Paulino, the $550 amount is staggering.

Seasonal migrant workers have to pay income tax like all other workers in Canada. They also pay Canadian Employment Insurance (EI) and make contributions to the Canadian Pension Plan. In 2001, Ontario CSWAP workers contributed $3.4 million to EI even though they cannot claim such EI benefits as welfare.

Paulino says the money he is able to bring back home is spent fast, and he believes the Mexican government is unwilling to negotiate better salaries.

Given the great personal cost, why do so many agricultural migrant workers like Paulino keep coming to the Canadian fields year after year?

Paulino says he, like many others, comes from a poor rural Mexican family. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to high school. He says he leaves his sweat and health in the Canadian fields when he comes and that it is very difficult to be away from his family for so long. “I have two young children. They miss me and I miss them,” he says.

Even so, traveling to work every year is an act of love towards his family. “I want to give my children a better life. I want them to study. That’s the only reason I come so far to work: for them,” he says.

Flores Rivas believes the conditions of the program are the best the negotiations have allowed.

“It [the program] is not that bad since people keep on coming,” he says.

When asked if he will continue to come back to Canada, Paulino says he will. He says it is not because the program is good for the workers, but because there are not enough jobs back home.

“We come because we have to come,” he says.

*Workers' names have been changed to avoid problems with their employers.

Verónica Islas is currently completing a Masters degree in Public Policy and Public Administration at Concordia University.

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