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Cheap labour: Seasonal agricultural workers in Québec 

Mayra Roffe Gutman and Annie Lapalme


Photo: Hubert Hayaud
A temporary foreign worker in Jean-Talon market, Montreal, October 2009.

Nine out of every 10 Quebecers prefer to consume local foods, says a December 2009 poll conducted by Quebec environmental organization Équiterre. One need only peruse one of Montréal’s jam-packed markets to observe that many consumers do, indeed, choose local products. Traditionally, the fruits and vegetables, like the friendly farmer selling them, grew on Quebec soil. Today, however, they are joined by new faces unloading boxes from the trucks or laying out the merchandise: a few of the thousands of seasonal agricultural workers who came from Mexico and Guatemala to work the Canadian farmland before returning to their countries of origin once the harvest is over. And if eating locally today does not cost more than a few extra dollars, it is in part thanks to this source of cheap and not-so-local labour.

The program to import farm labour from Mexico was launched in 1974 as an extension of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), which has overseen the recruitment of seasonal workers from Jamaica since 1966. Nearly three decades later, in 2003, the province of Quebec began accepting workers from Guatemala under the supervision of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFPW). 

Unlike the Mexican program, the program allowing Guatemalan workers to come to Canada was not negotiated bilaterally between the countries concerned, but between the International Organization for Migration (OIM) and FERME (a non-profit organization representing Quebec’s farmers); it therefore differs from the former in significant ways. While Mexican state institutions are responsible for worker selection, Canadian companies can recruit employees directly in Guatemala, thereby limiting the possibility of regulating and protecting workers. In addition, Guatemalans are required to cover certain costs that Mexicans are exempt from paying, such as housing. Finally, while a Guatemalan worker who has been expelled from a farm does not have the opportunity to return to Canada within the framework of the program, a Mexican worker in a similar situation would be able to reapply in the following year. 

When comparing the situation of the first agricultural immigrants —who came from Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and could request permanent residency after a few years— with that of today’s Mexicans and, to a greater extent, Guatemalans, there is a clear trend toward an ever more flexible workforce and reduced job security. It is also worth noting that the Quebec arrangement to accept Guatemalan workers coincided with growing attempts by Mexican workers in the province to unionize and press for recognition of their labour rights. In 2009, the province received, for the first time, more Guatemalan than Mexican workers and will start accepting Nicaraguans in 2010. Which country, even more impoverished than the previous ones, will be next on the list for recruiting increasingly vulnerable workers?

Canadian farms wishing to hire seasonal agricultural workers have a nearly inexhaustible supply of candidates to choose from. It is difficult to negotiate working conditions when there is always someone willing to work even more for even less; the pay, although minimal, is still much greater than what any of these workers could earn back home. It is also worth noting that the visa granting Guatemalan agricultural workers entry to Canada is linked to their work contract. If the situation involving the worker becomes problematic, then the solution is simple and speedy: the farmer dismisses the worker and the worker is repatriated within a maximum of 72 hours. Workers may protest if they so desire, as they have a contract and a work permit, but with what voice and in what language? How is one to protest with no possibility of requesting an impartial arbitration prior to repatriation? The strategy is, therefore, to avoid the possibility of being laid off at all costs, sometimes going so far as accepting despicable or dangerous working conditions, hiding signs of sickness and refraining from expressing any form of dissatisfaction.

The crop season ends in November, and about 7,000 seasonal agricultural workers who came to Quebec this year will return to their countries of origin as they are no longer needed there. By the end of this season, the workers will have won at least two important battles. In July 2010, Guatemalan consular officials announced that they would waive the security deposit of approximately C$400 previously required of Guatemalan workers as a condition for participation in the program. A few months earlier, Quebec’s Labour Standards Commission (Commission des normes du travail) declared unconstitutional a provision of the Labour Code that prohibited the unionization of farms where there was not at least one employee working throughout the year. Clearly, these are significant advances, but is it possible to speak of true access to unionization when the risk of losing one’s job —and consequently, the only source of income for an entire family— is so great? The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families of 1990 guarantees the right to an impartial trial prior to a migrant worker’s deportation. Despite promoting its temporary workers programs as an international model, Canada has yet to sign this convention. If the road toward unionization is to be a success, it is paramount to ensure that employers cannot use dismissal as a means of dissuading employees from joining a union.

Beginning in 2008, the number of temporary workers was greater than that of permanent residents accepted into Canada, for the first time in the country’s history. This reversal is not unusual, and is in line with an increasingly generalized trend in western countries. This situation is viable for the countries of the North because it satisfies their labour needs at a minimal cost in social protection, while it is attractive to the South because countries can convert waves of illegal migration into more acceptable ones and ensure the continuation of much-needed remittances. It is, therefore, very possible that the migration trends of this century will marked by their temporary nature.

Mayra Roffe Gutman is a doctoral candidate in sociology and Annie Lapalme is a masters candidate in geography at Université de Montréal. Both work as researchers for the Chair in Contemporary Mexican Studies of the Centre for International Studies and Research of Université de Montréal (CERIUM) and are interested in the working conditions of seasonal agricultural workers.

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