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Guatemalan temporary workers in Canada

Federico Urruela


Since 2003, Guatemala and Canada have productively implemented the mechanism of a temporary guest worker program, which has grown from a few hundred workers to close to 4,000 in 2010. With few exceptions, the program has been a success for the guest workers and employers alike, with only a handful of complaints filed with the Consulate. Recognizing its growing importance, in 2005 the Guatemalan government opened a fully staffed Consulate General in Montreal, with its main raison d’être being the well-being, consular management and care of the Guatemalan workers.

Guatemalan state institutions maintain close communication with their Canadian federal and provincial counterparts, and are pleased that new Canadian regulations on Immigration and Refugee Protection are coming into effect in April 2011 that will amend the current ones and seek to better protect foreign workers’ rights. Although not perfect, this program continues to be fine-tuned and to grow in Canadian provinces with the full involvement of responsible authorities and stakeholders on all sides. Guatemalan workers enjoy the benefits of working temporarily in Canada and return home with financial savings and more work experience, while Canadian employers have grown to rely on dedicated workers.

Georges de La Roche, Guatemala’s Ambassador to Canada.

The guest worker program that has brought temporary Guatemalan workers to Canada to work on farms is regulated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM); the initiative was not negotiated bilaterally between the two governments. The IOM is the principal and foremost recognized intergovernmental organization in the field of migration and is currently managing the program. The Guatemalan ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour closely monitor and regulate both ends of the program, and in the past when Canadian companies sent representatives to recruit directly in Guatemala, they always did so under supervision and in accordance with the established practices of the program. The Guatemalan government has been working with the IOM to improve recruitment procedures to respond to some shortcomings. Guatemalan authorities have also worked closely with Canadian counterparts, notably leading to the August 2010 removal of a C$400 deposit paid by guest workers to the IOM in response to concerns raised by the Department of Human Resource and Skills Development Canada to the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is important to note that temporary foreign workers, just as any local Canadian employees, are subject to the provincial labour codes, and as such, Guatemalan workers are paid the same wages that a local employee would receive for the same job. In agriculture, the provincial minimum wage is applied; however, in some sectors such as dairy and pork farms (one per cent of the Guatemalan temporary workforce in 2010), wages are higher. For example, hourly minimum wages in Quebec are $9.50 per hour, but a Guatemalan temporary worker on a dairy farm earns $11.78 per hour.

Due to the nature of the program, there are differences in the deductions made to Guatemalan workers vis-a-vis other temporary foreign workers; Guatemalan workers pay for housing only, since their airfare, work visa, recruitment fees and most local transportation costs are completely covered by the employer. These costs may actually exceed the expenses of hiring locally. The hiring of temporary foreign workers, regardless of the country of origin, is thus not inexpensive. In fact, these added costs demonstrate the labour shortages Canadian growers cope with in order be competitive. However, their investment is worthwhile, and since 2003 the hiring of Guatemalan workers has been largely a win-win situation for workers and employers alike.

Guatemalan temporary foreign workers are entitled to the same labour rights as are Canadian workers, and have the right to an impartial assessment prior to a migrant worker’s possible repatriation following dismissal by an employer. In fact, a worker being laid off does not equate to an automatic deportation, as only Citizenship and Immigration Canada has the authority to deport an individual from Canada. If a temporary foreign worker is fired, the worker has the right to remain in Canada if he or she so chooses, given his or her visa is still valid, because being dismissed does not constitute an offence. This is something that the Guatemalan consular staff oversees closely; following lay off, Guatemalan workers would be advised that they may remain in Canada and that their dismissal in no way constitutes an automatic deportation. They may also be referred to the pertinent provincial labour ministry, in the event that they consider their dismissal unwarranted or unlawful. Particular labour situations are managed on a case-by-case basis with the involvement of all parties.

Last summer, the Quebec Commission des normes du travail completed a series of visits to Quebec farms that employ temporary guest workers. In all, it visited more than 80 farms and spoke with almost 1,700 temporary foreign workers, of which 718 were Guatemalan. Despite overwhelmingly positive working conditions, the commission noted that most workers were not well aware of their rights, an issue that had already been raised by United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW). The Government of Guatemala applauds these outreach initiatives and strongly believes that an active participation from the local labour authorities is imperative in guaranteeing safe and dignified working conditions for all temporary foreign workers.

The financial benefits of working in Canada for temporary workers are not to be underestimated. Two weeks’ salary in Canada can be close to what a Guatemalan would earn doing similar work in half a year in his home country. Since most often contracts guarantee a minimum 40-hour work week, Guatemalan guest workers can make more than C$1,500 per month. By contributing to the federal Employment Insurance fund, Guatemalan temporary workers get access to parental benefits, although it has at times been challenging to find logistical solutions to cash the cheques back in Guatemala. This positive economic impact is augmented by the fact that the program typically employs married men and women with children who, via their remittances, support their immediate families back home and return to Guatemala with hands-on experience of the daily workings of a farm. The circular migratory aspect of the program is thus immensely beneficial and, unlike unregulated immigration elsewhere, Guatemalan workers return home by season’s end with increased savings and experience to reunite with their families.

Federico Urruela is Consul General of Guatemala in Montreal.

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