The number of temporary migrant workers in Quebec has more than doubled in 5 years

The number of temporary foreign workers in Quebec has risen more quickly than anywhere else in Canada, but experts say resources to prevent exploitation have not been sustained, leading to more workers deserting farms for illegal work elsewhere in Quebec or across the border.

The provincial government under François Legault of the Alliance for the Future of Quebec, which is seeking re-election on October 3, may Refusal to increase immigrationdespite a severe labor shortage that is expected to worsen in a booming economy with an aging population and a falling birth rate.

Instead, it struck deals with Ottawa to allow Quebec employers to triple the number of migrant workers by 2023 — a precarious workforce whose welfare depends on the goodwill of the employers.

“It’s a profound problem because you’re solving structural economic issues and structural issues in the workforce through a program that brings in people with a very clear subset of rights,” said Edward Dunsworth, associate professor of history at McGill University. the book Labor Harvest: Tobacco and the Global Making of Canada’s Agricultural Workforce It has just been published by McGill Queen’s University Press.

From 2017 to 2021, the number of permits issued by the federal government to Quebec employers for temporary foreign workers increased 133 percent, from 13,030 in 2017 to 30,340 in 2021.

According to an estimate by an advocacy group for migrant workers, that number could rise to 90,000 by 2027.

Prince Edward Island was second only to Quebec in terms of growth, rising from 605 permits issued in 2017 to 1,115 in 2021 — an increase of 84 percent. By comparison, 33,920 permits were issued in Ontario last year, up just 18 percent since 2017.

While temporary foreign workers remain the backbone of the agricultural sector in eastern Canada, they now support all kinds of industries, in jobs that aren’t just seasonal, from furniture manufacturing to food processing to health care.

Despite the program’s rapid expansion, resources in Quebec hardly kept pace. Researchers say this is driving a growing number of workers underground, and increasingly paying smugglers thousands of dollars to take them across the border into the United States.

Struggling to keep up

“Quebec has fewer help organizations and networks for workers than you can find in Ontario,” said Guillermo Candez, an assistant professor at the French University of Ontario in Toronto, who has conducted extensive field research in the Quebec City and Mexico region. He spent seven months with the families of migrant workers.

Candice is a board member of the Migrant Agricultural Workers Support Network Quebec Migrant Agricultural Workers Assistance Network (RATTMAQ), which recently opened new offices in Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Rivières du Loup and plans to open another soon in Saint-Jerome.

Human migration researcher Guillermo Candiz has done extensive field work in the Quebec City region and in Mexico, spending seven months with families of migrant workers. (Provided by the University of Ontario, France)

Despite the growth of its network, RATTMAQ struggles to receive every complaint.

Co-founder Michel Bellon said the increase was “amazing”. RATTMAQ handled 76 legal cases related to migrant worker complaints in 2020-2021. In the next twelve-month period, that number jumped to 578.

“The demand is huge compared to the amount of resources we have,” Bellon acknowledged. “More and more, we have to choose.”

The number of complaints submitted by temporary foreign workers to the Council for Health and Safety in the Quebec Workplace (CNESST) has also risen dramatically, according to statistics obtained by CBC through its Access to Information Request. That number rose from 10 in 2017, the year the agency created a separate category for them, to 146 in 2021 and to 143 by May 31, not halfway through 2022.

For Billon, the increase in complaints is not exactly a bad thing, as it means that more temporary migrant workers are willing to take a stand and stand up for themselves.

They said I take the side of the workers

Federico Alias, who was hired as the director of human resources for the North Montreal ranch last spring, said many workers have reason to complain. Elias said he noticed the power imbalance between the temporary worker and the employer firsthand.

Alias ​​was fired six weeks on the job, not long after health and safety committees were formed to ensure that labor laws in Quebec were respected.

“They said I was walking the workers line,” said Elias, who speaks fluent Spanish, making it easier for him to communicate with the workers. “I was not on the side of the workers: I was on the side of the law.”

Alias ​​said that farm managers and owners often remind workers that hundreds of others in their home countries want their jobs, ignoring their concerns about working and living conditions.

He said that the way the owners treated the workers and spoke lightly of them revealed how much power the system gives employers over these workers.

“I didn’t think that in 2022, we’re still operating in this way – with threats and fear. The men had stomachaches, and they were very anxious,” said Alias. “They are completely connected to their employer.”

One of the owners of the farm in question said that Elias was fired because he was not competent enough, but said that the committees he set up are still in place and are now run by two other HR employees.

The farm worker acknowledged that workers often feel uncomfortable talking, for fear of being sent home or not being called up for another season, but said the farm is trying to mitigate those situations by encouraging workers to open up to human resources representatives.

He said about 10 workers have left the farm this season, apparently to go to the United States — some so soon after arriving that he thought they intended to do so from the start. He said the farm has held meetings to discourage its workers from falling into the hands of smugglers, and to inform them of the dangers they face if they attempt to cross the border illegally.

Permits are linked to employers

Ultimately, RATTMAQ’s Billon says, the core structure of the Canadian Foreign Worker Program is in charge.

The program’s inequality is rooted in the fact that worker permits are tied to the employer, according to more than six migrant worker advocates and researchers CBC News spoke with.

In 2019, the federal government allowed temporary foreign workers in vulnerable situations to obtain open work permits that allow them to work for other employers, but permits are difficult to obtain without organized help.

Furthermore, it expires after one year and is not renewable. Once the original contract expires or is terminated, the worker can no longer apply for an open permit.

This is what happened to a Guatemalan worker who left the farm where he was working after the pressures of his superiors to work faster became too much.

“Honestly, I couldn’t stand the work any longer,” said the worker, whose name CBC agreed not to be named due to the fragility of his situation. He no longer has a permit, and is no longer eligible under the rules to apply for it.

Demonstrators called on the federal government to expand its permanent status program to include all refugees, international students, illegal immigrants and temporary foreign workers at a rally near Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s department office in Montreal in May 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A friend told him of some under-the-table construction he could do elsewhere in the county, and in desperate need of any other income, he accepted it.

“This scares me, but I took a risk because of the situation on the farm,” the worker said in a WhatsApp message.

go underground

Candace and Billon believe that the fact that migrant workers cannot change employer accounts is the reason for the rise in clandestine networks.

Fernando Borja, director of FERME, the Quebec agency that employs most temporary foreign agricultural workers in the province, said 220 migrant workers have left farms this year, including 10 during one weekend recently. It is believed that all or most of them tried to cross the border or carried out an illegal act.

Borja said he expects the number to exceed 300 this year: three times what it was in 2019.

“It’s a big problem for us,” Borja said. “Obviously it’s something very well organized and this is new. We didn’t have this before.”

Both the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency denied CBC’s request for interviews, saying they could not comment on open investigations and had no statistics of their own to share.

However, data published by the US Customs and Border Protection confirms a significant rise in interceptions of Guatemalan nationals in states bordering Quebec during the summer. As of September 3, there were 299 interceptions in 2022, compared to 149 interceptions in all of 2021 and 127 in 2020.

The US Federal Agency calls these interceptions “encounters” and says they include arrests of people who may end up in the US immigration detention system or be returned to Canada.

Candice said he is personally aware of several workers who crossed the border this summer.

He said there are several reasons why these workers, many of whom are from Guatemala, are motivated to go to the United States, including reuniting them with family or tempting them with the idea of ​​more opportunities there.

“If workers have the ability to change employers, and be able to stay, they are likely to decide to stay in Canada and not take the risk,” Candace said.

Advocates say solutions require political will

Bellon said Quebec will only see more foreign workers giving up their jobs, whether it is to leave the country or work elsewhere, unless it does more to prevent exploitation.

While the federal government oversees guest worker programs, Bellon says Quebec needs to do more to protect the people working through it.

Quebec is one of the few provinces with separate immigration powers that give it a say on who you let into the province and who can get permanent residence. If Quebec calls for work permits that allow foreign workers to change employers in certain sectors of the economy, Bellon believes it could work with Ottawa.

Michel Bellon, left, and Melvin Mendes, pictured last fall, co-founded Reseau d’aide aux travailuses ettravailmigrants agricole du Québec (RATTMAQ), which advocates for migrant workers’ rights. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Years ago, he said, RATTMAQ also called for separate legislation regulating the housing of temporary foreign workers, just as it does for remote forest workers.

“Why don’t we have one for [migrant] Workers? Because we distinguish? Because they are not Quebecers? ”

He says obtaining open work permits alone would solve about 60 percent of the cases RATTMAQ handles.

Quebec relies more than other provinces on workers hired by private agencies for contracts of up to 24 months, rather than seasonal workers whose home governments have signed agreements with Canada, and thus better monitors their employment and working conditions and limits contracts to eight months, according to Candace.

CAQ spokeswoman Nadia Talbot said the Legault government had set up a CNESST task force to better inform migrant workers of their rights.

“We must continue to do more and remember that temporary foreign workers have the same rights as Quebec workers. This is a totally non-negotiable concept for us,” Talbot wrote in an email.

The Liberal Party of Quebec said, if elected, it would increase the number of permanent immigrants allowed into Quebec to 70,000 in 2022. It says it will also create agreements with different regions of the province in order to “define their own immigration needs.”

Quebec Solidere said it “firmly” supports open permits by sector. The province would like to control its own temporary foreign worker program, and said that if it forms a government, it will increase workplace inspections by CNESST, offer French language courses at work, and allow all temporary workers or students to apply permanently. Residence.

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