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April 2003, Volume 9, Number 2

Canada: Guest Workers

Canada admitted about 17,000 foreign farm workers for seasonal employment on Canadian farms in 2002, including 55 percent from Mexico and 45 percent from Caribbean countries, primarily Jamaica. The number of Mexican workers has been rising: 4,908 Mexican workers were admitted in 1994; 4,886 in 1995; and 5,215 in 1996. About 80 percent of the migrants are employed on fruit, vegetable and tobacco farms in Ontario.

The Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, begun in 1966 with the Caribbean and extended to Mexico in 1974, is based on a government-to-government memorandum of understanding (MOU). For the first two decades, there was an annual quota on the number of foreign farm workers who could be admitted and the program was administered by government agencies in Canada as well as in the emigration areas. In 1987, the program was redesigned to give the private sector a greater role in program administration and the quota on annual admissions was lifted.

Canadian farm employers initiated the process of importing foreign workers under these MOUs by placing an order which specifies their labor needs, wages paid, etc. with Human Resources and Development Canada at least eight weeks before the workers are needed. These job orders must offer foreign workers a minimum of 240 hours of work in a period of six weeks (usually 40 hours of work per six-day week for at least six weeks), free housing and meals or cooking facilities, and the minimum (C$6.90 an hour in Ontario), prevailing wage, or piece-rate wage paid to Canadians doing the same job, whichever is higher.

Canadian workers are sought to fill these job orders. If none are found, then three to four weeks before the employer's specified need date, the employer's request for foreign workers is approved by HRDC, and the farm employer sends the order to a private organization, called Farms in Ontario and Ferme in Quebec. The farm employer can specify by name the workers he would like to hire, or have workers recruited to fill his job order. About 83 percent of farmers named the workers they wanted in 1999, so most Mexicans arriving in Canada to do seasonal farm work already have five to 10 years experience working on Canadian farms. These private organizations charge the farm employer a fee for ensuring that the foreign workers named or recruited reach the Canadian farmer who requested them, and arrange for the workers transportation to Canada.

If the employer did not name a worker, the Mexican Ministry of Labor recruits workers to fill job orders. About 75 percent of the workers headed for Canada are from four Mexican states: Tlaxcala, Guanajuato, Mexico and Hidalgo. According to the Canada-Mexico MOU, the Mexican migrants sent to Canada must be at least 18, and have experience doing farm work. Mexico implements this provision by requiring first time migrants to submit official letters certifying that they are farmers, to undergo a medical exam, and to be at least 25. Since workers go to Canada without their families, some say that married workers with children are preferred because they are more likely to return to Mexico at the end of the season. The workers who are recruited are processed at the Canadian embassy in Mexico, receiving a letter of introduction that enables them to enter Canada.

Employers advance the cost of round-trip transportation between Mexico City and Canada, and most employers recoup about a third of the transportation cost in deductions from worker wages. Employers may also deduct from wages the cost of health insurance payments made to the Mexican insurance company that provides coverage, as well as up to C$6.50 a day for meals. Migrants are eligible for health insurance coverage upon arrival- the usual three-month wait for coverage under provincial health care programs is waived. Four percent of worker pay, up to C$425 a worker, is deducted to cover the costs of administering the program.

The foreign workers in 2002 were guaranteed a minimum C$7.15 an hour and 40 hours of work per six-day week for at least six weeks, free housing and meals or cooking facilities, and the minimum or prevailing wage, whichever is higher; the Caribbean workers have 25 percent of their pay deducted in a forced savings program. Migrants receive tax-reporting numbers and contribute to the Canadian pension system as well as have Canadian income taxes withheld from their earnings. At the end of each season, farm employers evaluate each worker.

The major benefit to the migrants is higher earnings then they would have at home. A study of the remittances sent home by Mexican migrants in Canada concluded that most did not have substantial savings until their second year in the program, primarily because they had to pay off loans taken out for required medical exams, visa fees, etc. With accumulated savings, migrants tend to buy land and build or improve housing, or invest in education for their children. There was remarkably little investment by returned migrants in improving farm land or equipment, with only 60 of 255 migrants reporting investments in farms in Mexico.

Both the Canadian and Mexican governments seem well satisfied with this seasonal worker program, and Mexico has proposed that the US adopt a similar program to manage Mexican migrants in the US. The US currently admits 15,000 to 20,000 Mexican farm workers a year under a similar program, the H-2A program. However, the ready availability of unauthorized workers and the opportunity for Mexican migrants to switch from farm to nonfarm jobs makes it difficult to ensure that farmers would prefer legal workers and that any admitted would remain farm workers in a larger program.

Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, during a state visit to Mexico in March 2003 said that at he would like to extend the program to other sectors. Pilot projects are now underway with Mexican workers at hotels in Alberta and a meat-packing plant in Winnipeg.

Union leaders in Canada called the country's Seasonal Agricultural Workers program "Canada's shameful dirty secret." The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has opened a support center in southwestern Ontario to provide migrants with health and legal services. The 239,000-member UFCW says that the migrants pay $11 million a year in employment insurance premiums but cannot claim benefits, do not get paid overtime wages, and are subject to deportation if fired.


April Lindgren, "Officials seek ways to expand farm program to other sectors with labor shortages," Ottawa Citizen, March 3, 2003. Barry Wilson, "Union to defend farm workers," Western Producer, Friday, Feb. 28, 2003. Basok, Tanya. 2002. Tortillas and Tomatoes: Transmigrant Mexican Harvesters in Canada McGill-Queens University Press.


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