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Foreign workers on the rise in Quebec

René Mantha

Persistent labour shortages are met with increasing recruiment delays.

Seasonal agricultural workers harvest tomatoes in a field.
Photo: F.E.R.M.E.

Since the turn of the century, there has been a considerable increase in the demand for foreign labour in agriculture in Quebec. The reasons are quite clear: a sharp drop in birth rates, improvements in the economic and employment situation, a decrease in the number of farms but an overall increase in the amount of land suitable for cultivation on the farms that remain in operation. This shortage of seasonal labour has left Quebec agricultural producers with very little choice except to appeal to temporary foreign workers.

From 1974 to 2002, Quebec agricultural producers had been hiring workers from Mexico and the eastern Caribbean as part of such bilateral agreements as the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

In 2002 a new country, Guatemala, was added to the agreement as part of a new Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (NOC C and D). Eight years later, there are almost as many Guatemalan agricultural workers in Quebec as there are Mexicans, making up a combined total of 7,000 workers.

In the summer of 2010, the Foundation for Entrepreneurs Recruiting Foreign Agricultural Workers (F.E.R.M.E.), signed a recruitment agreement with the Honduran government to diversify the sources of temporary labour in the province. In the months to come, there should be 300 Honduran workers on farms in Quebec. If the results of this experimental pilot project are conclusive, F.E.R.M.E. plans to increase this number.

Labour needs should keep rising over the next few years as we have seen yearly increases of 15 to 20 per cent in the past decade. The demand for labour is mainly concerned with low-skill jobs, although employment opportunities are not solely limited to the agricultural sector. F.E.R.M.E. does provide labour for other business sectors as part of a pilot project which is currently limited but could grow in the future.

The year 2011 has seen some significant changes in relations between countries participating in bilateral agreements with the Quebec and Canadian governments. For example the medical exam formerly required for Mexican workers coming to Canada is no longer mandatory. The Mexican government has also authorized a new income deduction for temporary workers at a rate of $2.16 per day to cover the employers’ accommodation expenses. This deduction has not been applied, because the authorization of all the provinces is required and four provinces, including Quebec, have not yet accepted it. They have requested that the bilateral agreement be amended to clearly state that free accommodation is no longer offered. If this clause is amended, then the deduction will be approved by the remaining four provinces. The file will be updated at the next annual evaluation meeting of the TFWP, to be held next November in Ottawa.

There have also been longer delays to process requests for foreign labour and the procedures have become increasingly cumbersome. This has been noted not only here at home in Canada with Service Canada, but overseas as well in dealings with Immigration Canada, and in particular, with the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala. Further, there are additional procedures and requirements that have been put in place by the Ministry of Immigration and Cultural Communities of Quebec. Changes made to the forms and computer systems have also complicated and increased delays for authorizations.

Apparently, the new procedures aim to expedite the process, but over the past two years it has become more difficult than ever to get temporary foreign workers into the country. A request for a labour permit in the agricultural sector used to take a maximum of eight weeks and now it may take up to 12 or even 14 weeks for a request to be processed. These delays are not at all reasonable and in the upcoming weeks and months, F.E.R.M.E. and government authorities will work to improve dialogue. Forms and application procedures will be reviewed to bring those processing delays down to a more acceptable waiting period. It is difficult for agricultural producers to have to justify the labour shortages and then sit through such long delays in processing their requests when the average employment period for this type of temporary work is only about 20 weeks.

As far as activities in other employment sectors are concerned, delays in processing requests average around 16 weeks for a job with an average employment period of eight months in cases where two-year work permits may be issued.

Moreover, the industry has to deal with new regulations set in place by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), which limit temporary foreign workers to a maximum of four years of work in Canada before having to return to their home country, where they must stay four more years before being allowed to return. This implies that there will be more rotation of staff in temporary jobs.

To conclude, it must be made clear that the labour needs are there and that the shortage of this type of temporary worker is definitely detrimental to economic development. There needs to be a serious shake-up so that the government's goals are more clearly defined. Moreover, the structure of the Canadian and Quebec governmental systems must be better adapted to meet the needs of business owners. Authorities need to play the role of facilitators instead of putting up more administrative obstacles under the pretext that more controls need to be put in place. It must be clearly understood that we are talking about temporary foreign workers and not candidates for permanent immigration. For the past 20 years, temporary foreign workers coming to Canada have returned to their home countries at a rate of 99.5 per cent, which is considered a great success and is widely recognized by all participating partners.

René Mantha is the General Director of F.E.R.M.E. He can be contacted at: admin@fermequebec.com.

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