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July 2004, Volume 10, Number 3


Mexico-Canada Guest Workers

The Commonwealth Caribbean (1966) and Mexican (1974) Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) admits foreign workers for seasonal employment on Canadian farms, primarily in Ontario and Quebec, but also six other provinces. The SAWP has allowed Canadian farmers to import foreign workers for up to eight months a year from the Caribbean since 1966, and from Mexico since 1974, and in 2002, some 10,700 Mexicans and 7,800 Caribbean workers were admitted.

The major destination is Ontario, which has 60,000 farms that employ about 100,000 workers, including 20,000 migrant and seasonal workers. Many SAWP workers are employed on tomato farms with five to 15 workers around Leamington, Ontario, the "tomato capital of Canada." Mexican data suggest that 42 percent of guest workers were employed in vegetables in Canada, 18 percent in (tomato) greenhouses, and 13 percent each in tobacco and fruit.

Mexican Survey. Since 1974, Mexican workers have been recruited to work seasonally in Canada, mostly in Ontario (70 percent) and Quebec (25 percent). Initially, only married men from the Mexico City area were recruited by Mexican authorities, but after 1989, women could go (about three percent of the 12,000 workers in 2003 were women, whom some employers prefer for fruit and vegetable harvesting and packing), and the share of workers from provinces surrounding Mexico City began to drop as workers could come from anywhere in Mexico, to 70 percent in 2003; unmarried men are allowed to participate since 2003.

To participate, Mexicans must have experience working in agriculture, have at least three and no more than 12 years of schooling, men must be 22-45 and women 23-40, and men must be married while women must have dependent children- spouses and children remain in Mexico. However, 80 percent of the workers interviewed in a 2003 survey reported that they were requested by name by a Canadian farmer.

The Mexican government advertises the ability to work in Canada via its 139 State Employment Service offices, but workers must, on average, make six trips to Mexico City at their own expense to actually complete procedures (since May 2002, the Mexican government has provided most first-time workers with 3,000 pesos ($280) to travel to Mexico City, where they learn about the work they will do in Canada and their rights and obligations).

Workers receive passports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (special three-year passports for 165 pesos), temporary departure forms from the Ministry of the Interior, get medical exams at Canadian-approved health centers in Mexico City- a single window system attempts to coordinate these activities at the Program Office of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, to which returning migrants must submit "return reports" by January 31 of the year following their work in Canada.

A survey of 360 workers who went to Canada from the states of Mexico, Tlaxcala, and Morelos in 2003 found that most workers are very satisfied with their work experience in Canada, with almost 40 percent saying they liked "everything" about being a guest worker, and 30 percent saying that they most liked having a job. Most of the workers' complaints centered on Mexican administration of the program, with workers complaining of multiple trips to Mexico City and poor service from Mexican consular officials.

Mexican consular officials represent the workers in Canada, but relatively few workers turn to them when they have problems, and most thought that it would be good to have a union represent them. Some Canadian employers would like to imitate the Caribbean seasonal worker program and deduct five percent of workers' wages to provide improved services to the guest workers.

Suggestions for improving the program include lengthening the time before need that a Canadian employer must request workers- the original MOU required 45 days before need while the current MOU requires 20 days notice and reducing the reserve of Mexican workers ready to go (10 percent of 12,000 workers who actually go, meaning that 1,200 workers pay fees and get ready to go, but do not go). The Mexican government spent $2.3 million or about $220 per worker to administer the program, plus about $700,000 to subsidize trips to Mexico City for some 2,300 first-time workers.

Mexicans in Canada. Mexicans working in Canada as temporary farm workers had an average 7.7 years of schooling (the Mexican average is 7.6 years), and most were farmers (over 60 percent) or day laborers in Mexican agriculture before going to Canada. They reported earning 544 pesos or $55 a week in Mexico in 2003. Most workers were 25 to 45, and most went to Canada because they had a relative who had gone, often a brother, and 75 percent of those interviewed had been in Canada at least one season before.

Most workers came from relatively better off villages and towns, and had more schooling etc than their neighbors who did not participate in the program. Of 360 Canadian workers interviewed, only seven reported that persons in their households were employed in the US, but a third of the workers as well as a third of the households reported that a family member worked at least one month away from the village in Mexico.

Most workers share rooms in old farm houses, hostels built for workers, and mobile homes; almost half said their housing in Canada was better than their housing in Mexico. Most workers described the work in Canada as easy, but some said they worked more hours a day in Canada, and few received any training that was useful in Mexico.

Workers earned an average C$9,100 in 2002 and, after deductions of 20 percent, had net earnings of $7,300. If they stayed in Mexico, the workers said they would have earned C$900 for the same seasonal work (the minimum wage in Mexico was 40 pesos a day). Most workers were paid hourly wages; the average was C$7.25, and all reported working at least some overtime.

Deductions are a major complaint of workers. Employers pay the worker's flight, a $150 visa fee per worker, and deduct up to $425 from worker pay. Since 1993, foreigners working in Canada have Employment (Unemployment) Insurance and social security (for workers earning more than C$3,300) deductions made from their pay, but are not eligible for UI payments, and workers who are at least 60 can apply for pensions- 360 have so far. Income taxes are deducted, but can be refunded to workers earning less than C$14,000- 78 percent of workers applied for income tax refunds. The United Food and Commercial Workers says that Mexican and Caribbean migrants paid a total C$8.2 million in Employment Insurance Act premiums in 2002--C$3.4 million by workers and $8.2 million by employers- but the migrants cannot collect benefits when they are unemployed.

The average stay in Canada is five months, and 60 percent of the workers reported returning before their contracts expired because there was no more work for them. Workers reported working over nine hours a day, and often Sundays and holidays, but Canadian law does not require 1.5 times normal wages for overtime, and few workers reported receiving premium pay.

Migrants remitted an average $4,800 in 2002, paying an average $23 each time to make eight to nine transfers. Two-thirds of the migrants sent money via banks and 10 percent used Western Union, which charged an average $47 per transfer. Since 2000, the Mexican consulate has encouraged Canadian employers to deposit workers' pay in a Canadian bank that provides two debit cards, one for the worker and one to send to the worker's family in Mexico, where relatives can withdraw funds for a $3 cost. Some Mexican banks offer workers who visit the Program Office in Mexico City the chance to open accounts, but only 500 accounts were opened in 2002.

Workers say that the major benefit from going to Canada is higher incomes for their families and better schooling for their children; some workers in the program for over a decade had children who had become professionals. After working for several years to pay off the debts they incurred to get into the program, workers reported that their first priority was building or improving their house in Mexico. There are few investments made by the workers in their villages, reflecting the lack of investment opportunities as well as limited funds from seasonal work abroad.

For example, two-thirds of the migrants interviewed in Mexico said they learned about a new crop in Canada, but only 10 percent tried to apply that new knowledge in Mexico, mostly because they lacked access to land. There have apparently not been any governmental efforts to match remittances or otherwise utilize the skills of returned migrants in Mexico.

Profiles of typical sending areas suggest why there is little investment in agriculture by returned migrants. Miacatlan in Morelos had 24,000 residents in 2000, including 7,400 workers, 40 percent in agriculture, and sent 61 migrants to work on Canadian farms in 2001. There were five ejidos with 12,200 hectares of land, plus 2,900 communal hectares, but only 2,000 of the 4,500 planted hectares were irrigated. The major crop is corn, yields average two tons an hectare, and land costs about 100,000 pesos or $9,000 a hectare.

Mexican Agriculture. The growth in Mexican farm output began slowing in the 1970s, just as the population growth rate increased. To avoid rising food imports, the Mexican government in the late 1970s increased spending on the farm sector, including subsidizing inputs and guaranteeing output prices. During the 1980s crisis, financial support for farmers was reduced, and in the 1990s, the government began to distinguish between subsistence farmers and commercial farmers. Until 1993, the National Solidarity Program (PRONASOL) provided most small farmers with the equivalent of one monthly minimum wage per hectare ($110) for corn or bean production. As a result, small farmers produced an estimated two-thirds of Mexican corn, often at high prices, in the early 1990s.

In 1992, the Mexican government raised the support price of corn to twice the world price in an effort to achieve self-sufficiency. Simultaneously, input subsidies were reduced, so that many small farmers had trouble increasing yields to take advantage of the higher prices. In 1993, the PROCAMPO farm policy aimed to ease the transition to Nafta's freer trade with a guaranteed price of corn of 650 pesos ($203 dollars) a ton in 1994, double the international price, plus a payment of 330 pesos ($110 a hectare) for farming the land.

PROCAMPO added money to the farming sector, but did not solve rural poverty problems. For example, a small farmer with five hectares of rain-fed land might produce a ton of corn per hectare, or five tons, and receive 4,900 pesos or $127 for corn and 1,650 pesos for farming the land. A commercial farmer with 300 hectares of irrigated land might produce six tons a hectare, or 1,800 tons which, at 650 pesos a ton, generates 1.2 million pesos, plus another 330 pesos a hectare for farming the land. After deducting production costs, the commercial farmer may be earning $21,000 a month, far more than the peasant.

Nova Scotia. In Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, vegetables such as broccoli and berries are picked by Caribbean migrants, even though the local unemployment rate ranges from 11 to 17 percent. Farmers say that local workers insist on being paid in cash, so that they can collect UI benefits while working.

Beginning in 1997, farmers deducted employment insurance contributions from workers on the payroll more than seven days, which showed that many seasonal workers were also collecting government benefits while working for cash. In other cases, government benefits were reduced by $1 for each dollar earned in agriculture.

Kelly Toughill, "Sour times at berry farms," Toronto Star, July 10, 2004. Verduzco, Gustavo and Marøa Isabel Lozano. 2004. A Study of the Program for Temporary Mexican Workers in Canadian Agriculture. Additional reports are available at:

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