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A new era of seasonal Mexican migration to Canada

Ofelia Becerril Quintana

The growth of the program is not to the benefit of temporary foreign workers.

The April 2011 meeting held between the governments of Canada and Mexico —which ended with the signing of a new memorandum, the approval of amendments to immigration regulations, and the design of the Joint Action Plan— has reopened discussions on the basis of the bilateral agreement and the future of temporary labour mobility for Mexican workers coming to Canada.

Under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), 15,809 Mexican workers were employed in 2010, compared to 203 in 1974. However, with the recent influx of temporary foreign workers under the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (NOC C and D), it is clear that working conditions have continued to deteriorate, temporary employment is increasingly precarious, immigration and temporary employment policies are being deregulated, and mobility has been diversified by gender, ethnic group, class and immigration status.

Figure 1: Number of Mexican temporary foreign workers under the SAWP, 1974-2010
Source: Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, Mexico

In its present phase, the SAWP is experiencing a dramatic rise in activity with the increase in the number of both Mexican and Caribbean migrants and of employers (approximately 2,000) participating in the program. In the Mexican case, the demand for work has increased in nine Canadian provinces, and workers are recruited from all Mexican states. Today, workers are hired to work mainly in three provinces (53 per cent in Ontario, 20 per cent in Quebec and 19 per cent in British Columbia). Compared to almost four decades ago, Mexican workers are employed in a larger number of productive processes, they have greater labour possibilities, fulfill longer-term contracts, constitute a stable group of workers and are distributed throughout a larger area in rural Canada. They come mainly from the State of Mexico (18 per cent), Tlaxcala (13 per cent), Veracruz and Puebla (7 per cent), Guanajuato and Michoacan (6 per cent).  

Although female temporary foreign workers constitute only four per cent of all the workers in the program, their employment in the Canadian agricultural sector has been growing at a constant rate. In 2010, 609 female Mexican workers were employed under SAWP, compared to the first 37 female participants in the program in 1989. While men were dispersed throughout nine provinces, women were mainly employed in the Niagara region and the Leamington area in Ontario. However, the particular situation of female Mexican workers has not been adequately dealt with either in the literature or in the policy agenda. A large proportion of the male workers are married, while the female workers are generally single mothers and divorced, separated or widowed women, with children whom they are still raising. Gender, understood as a social system, shapes immigration patterns, processes and experiences for both men and women as Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo maintains in her article published in 2008. Therefore, it is important to consider the implications of the fact that male workers leave their children with their wives, while female workers leave children in the care of a grandmother, aunt or the eldest daughter. The number and age of the children have repercussions on the arrangements and commitments that migrant workers and their domestic units have to make to reorganize their lives during the migrant’s absence, but it is more difficult for women because their decision to migrate depends on the negotiations that they can make with some family member who will look after the children and take on other domestic responsibilities while they are working in Canada. Changing generational positions have also realigned the daily lives of Mexican migrants as well as the labour market in Canada. Today in some cases, two generations of workers —fathers and sons, mothers and daughters— participate in the program.

Figure 2: Increase/Decrease in SAWP participation by sex (%)
Source: Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, Mexico

Alternately, the NOC C and D Pilot Project, in place since 2004, functions as a work permit granted by the Canadian federal government that allows Mexican migrants to work for authorized employers who require low-skill labour for the agricultural, construction, manufacturing and service industries. Through this mechanism, the Canadian government legalizes and regulates an employment activity that several companies were already carrying out by hiring temporary foreign workers.

Regulation and deregulation of seasonal employment

Recent migration policies relating to temporary employment of Mexican workers in Canada are based on more general strategies that can be explained by what some authors have called the “gloves-off economy,” according to Annette Bernhardt, Heather Boushey, Laura Dresser and Chris Tilly in their 2008 study. Such temporary migration policies and processes under SAWP and the NOC C and D Pilot Project aim to regulate flexible employment regimes that involve the organization of work based on gender, race, class, ethnic group, nationality and immigration status, and deregulate recruitment processes, which will lead to the mobilization of federal and provincial institutions, recruiters, private Canadian agencies, Mexican intermediaries and social networks. These new methods of recruiting Latin American, Caribbean and Philippine labour will increasingly enable Canadian employers to hire temporary foreign workers without any supervision or control by respective governments. Thus, a new era of temporary migration in Canada is emerging and can be compared to what is occurring with temporary foreign workers in the United States.

The deregulation of temporary employment has been strengthened by the NOC C and D Pilot Project. However, the impact of this project in both countries is still unknown. It seems to have gained enough momentum that within a few years the seasonal migration of Mexicans to Canada under the NOC C and D Pilot Project will match if not exceed the seasonal migration of workers under the SAWP.

The NOC C and D Pilot Project has been institutionalized since July 2004. In 2009, the following provinces participated: Alberta (accounting for 51.2 per cent of workers), Quebec (16.4 per cent), British Columbia (10.3 per cent), Ontario (8.4 per cent), Saskatchewan (4 per cent), Manitoba (3.1 per cent), Nova Scotia (2.1 per cent), and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon (4.46 per cent combined, in order of importance). In 2006, 12,304 temporary foreign workers were employed. By 2009 that number had increased to 30,488 workers from different countries. In summary, there was an increase of 40 per cent over the period, according to data from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.  

Compared to the SAWP, the length of the contract period is greater under the NOC C and D Pilot Project since it can be from one to two years. In addition, working conditions are different since the employer is not obligated to provide housing for the worker. The temporary status of the foreign worker changes, but the program does not offer the possibility of living permanently in Canada.

The growth of temporary employment programs for foreign workers in Canada has not reflected an increase in the quality of employment either for Mexican workers or for Caribbean, Guatemalan or Philippine workers. On the contrary, the combination of migration policies that regulate the employment and lives of temporary foreign workers and policies that deregulate labour recruitment mechanisms leads to a scenario where working conditions are not improved, in particular with regard to low salaries, labour insecurity, irregularity of seasonal employment, and employment, housing and health standards. Temporary employment systems are based on flexible models and use strategies related to gender, race, class, ethnic group, nationality, citizenship and immigration status in order to reduce salaries in the highly competitive industries that participate in the SAWP and the NOC C and D Pilot Project.

Ofelia Becerril is a professor and researcher in Anthropology at the Colegio de Michoacán in Mexico. She is the principal researcher for the trinational project “Trabajo transnacional, políticas laborales de género y organización familiar. Mujeres transmigrantes temporales de México a Estados Unidos y Canadá.” She is interested in the working conditions of seasonal agricultural workers.

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