Skip to content

Indentured labour in Montreal’s backyard

Seble Gameda looks at Canada’s institutional exploitation of migrant workers

Saint-Rémi is a small town located forty kilometres south of Montreal. As I approach the town by bus, I pass by large farmlands of cornfields and vegetable plots, with trailers and 18-wheelers alongside. This agricultural landscape comes to an odd halt in the centre of Saint-Rémi, where I am convinced that I have entered Latin America. The sounds of mariachi bands fill my ears, Guatemalans and Mexicans pass by me on their bicycles, the smells of tostadas and empanadas waft in the air, and Spanish rolls off everyone’s tongues.

Saint-Rémi is a major site for commercial farming, employing between two and three thousand migrant workers in the nearby vegetable and berry farms.

As I wander down the street, countless workers exit an imposing Catholic church. Leaving the church parking lot are numerous school buses, used to transport the migrant workers. Following these school busses, I arrive at a large park with a small play structure and tennis courts. It is Sunday, the workers’ only day off, and a few hundred migrants are watching a weekly soccer game.

I find the migrant support centre when I return to the centre of town, above a local bar where a sign taped to the inside of a second-storey window reads “Alliance des Travailleurs Agricoles.” Upstairs is a series of offices and a makeshift living space with couches, tables, and coffee machines, where many workers are chatting as they wait to see the support centre employees. There, sitting on the couch, is Abundio Lopez.

Lopez, originally from Mexico, is working his tenth season in Canada and his first in Quebec. Throughout his decade in temporary agricultural work, he has experienced the rule of law of his employer, minimum wage salaries, inadequate healthcare, and fear of deportation due to a complete lack of job security. “If I fail in anything, I’m practically out of the program,” says Lopez in Spanish. “So I arrive tense, and with many problems.”

The plight of migrant workers in Saint-Rémi is not isolated, but rather mirrored all across Canada. Throughout the country these workers face countless instances of being denied their basic rights: poor health standards, workplace fatalities and deportation.

Over 97 per cent of migrant workers in Canada are male. These labourers must have both spouses and children to ensure that they have enough incentive to return to their home countries and not remain in Canada.

Proper healthcare is often denied to these workers, and dangerous working and living conditions are commonplace, subjecting the workers to frequent injury and even death. The agricultural industry has one of the highest rates of workplace fatalities; 33 migrant workers have been killed on the job since 1999 in Ontario alone. Two Jamaican workers on an Ontarian farm were killed less than two months ago, overcome by toxic gas fumes while producing apple cider.

Since migrant workers’ immigration status is tied to their employment, employers are often the sole authority in workers’ lives. They dictate living standards, working conditions, and healthcare access. With all these basic needs in the hands of their bosses, workers have expressed an extreme sense of fear and concern with standing up for their rights.

“The boss decides the working conditions,” said Lopez. “If the boss says ‘Work 12 hours,’ I have to work.” Workers at Canadian commercial farms are paid minimum wage ($9.50 per hour in Quebec), with no compensation for overtime, sometimes working upward of sixty or seventy hours per week.

There have been some unionization attempts to improve their current situation. But this remains largely unsuccessful throughout many provinces. Ontario and Alberta represent the two provinces in which the right to unionize is specifically denied. In Leamington, Ontario, a major site for tomato production, wildcat strikes broke out in both 2001 and 2003 to protest abusive conduct and the denial of proper living and working conditions. The main leaders of these strikes were subsequently deported.

In order to support these migrant workers in their situations of marginalization and precarious status, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has created ten Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) support centres across Canada, including the one I visited in Saint-Rémi. These centres provide assistance of all forms, from applying for parental tax benefits, to monitoring records from the commission de santé et securité au travail, to addressing wage issues. “It’s everything that we as Canadians do ourselves, but since everything is in French or English, it is doubly hard for the workers,” said Saint-Rémi support centre coordinator Marie-Jeanne Van Doorne in French.

Lopez and workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are employed through the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), a bilateral agreement between Canada and the workers’ countries of origin. This program employs migrant workers for a single season on industrial farms in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. Workers from Guatemala are employed through a separate program, the Low-Skill Pilot Project (LSPP). This recently created private program has opened 42 new industries to migrant workers, including janitorial work and meatpacking. Guatemalans employed through the LSPP come to Saint-Rémi for two-years terms to work on commercial farms.

Andrea Galvez, Quebec Coordinator for the AWA support centres, commented on the international and personal level of manipulation that occurs on these farms, focusing on the LSPP. “What [the agricultural companies] are saying, not only to the workers but also to the consulate and even to the government is, ‘Don’t ask for too much because there are plenty of other countries who are willing to send their people.’ They’re also pitting the workers against each other to raise productivity. … It’s not only exploitation – it’s really dangerous.”

These tactics put the labourers in stressful and gruelling positions, reminding them of their expendability. (Workers need to be specifically requested by their employer to return for a subsequent season.) Workers with minimal education are often chosen for these programs, making them more easily manipulated. Employers often withhold their visas and passports upon arrival as a way of creating a relationship of dependency.

Conditions within the LSPP tend to be worse than that of the SAWP, and there is now a trend of decreasing Mexican labour and exponentially increasing Guatemalan labour.

In Saint-Rémi this year, roughly forty per cent of the agricultural workers are Mexican, while sixty per cent are Guatemalan. This is a shift from 2009 when the representation was fifty-fifty. The LSPP contains “no involvement whatsoever of the Canadian government,” said Galvez. “The working and salary conditions are negotiated directly by the employers and by a third party. In Guatemala it’s the International Organisation of Migration, which is rotten and corrupt and is really just selling labour.”

Labourers are also technically provided healthcare, but Lopez shed light on the superficiality of this claim: “I had an accident, a stomach disease. But I won’t tell my boss. I have to endure the pain to work.” Employers commonly neglect to provide medical services to the workers, instead threatening them with deportation. With this thought always lingering over workers’ heads, real needs such as healthcare are often foregone to ensure a livelihood for themselves and their families. They become scared to access the services that are rightfully provided to them.

Accompanying these abusive working conditions are inadequate (and at times unsafe) living conditions. Housing arrangements are often set up in temporary trailers located alongside the commercial farms. “One of the worst ones that I went to see, the floor of the shower area was basically rotten and falling through, there was mould in the shower and there was mould in the washing machine,” said Anna Malla, former employee at the Saint-Rémi Workers Centre, and QPIRG McGill’s Internal Coordinator. “A lot of people were getting sick and having stomach infections. The water was a brown yellow colour and…the pump system…was coming from a stagnant water source.”

Although such oppressive conditions seem to be relics of the past in this country, they still flourish on these commercial farms where migrant workers are viewed as dispensable commodities. “If the boss says, ‘Live in a house with ten other people,’ we need to accept,” stated Lopez, illustrating his complete lack of freedom and subjection to his employer.

Workers are also paying employment insurance, Pension Plan and income tax, and receiving none of the benefits, as they are unable to become permanent residents. Racist claims that migrant workers are stealing Canadian jobs permeate society, while these dire situations of inequality remains well masked. Lopez succinctly noted his relationship to Canada: “When people ask me where I’m from, I say Canada when I’m in Canada. Because I too belong to Canada.”

In order to challenge these various forms of neglect and oppression, the UFCW has been actively organizing towards the unionization of migrant workers in Quebec. This would provide workers with the ability to freely advocate for improved medical services, as well as living and working conditions, without the risk of deportation or punishment. The UFCW achieved a significant victory in April 2009 with a change in Quebec Labour Code 21.5, allowing migrant workers to unionize. The government of Quebec appealed the ruling immediately, however, and unionization currently remain impossible.

“The change in Article 21.5 surely scared the employers,” said Van Doorne. However, the law was quickly appealed to the Supreme Court by the provincial government. An exception to this labour code is greenhouse workers, who are employed throughout the year and therefore allowed to unionize
“I don’t think they’re ready, the farmers, but I think the workers are ready, and it’s in their interest. Unionization is the only hope for them…to be treated like workers, like us, like everyone,” said Van Doorne.

The ways in which people can migrate through borders is increasingly being surveyed and manipulated. In Canada, the emergence of the LSPP has drastically increased migration while decreasing the number of landed immigrants permitted in the country. Nearly 82,00 people came to Canada last year under the LSPP, SAWP, and a handful of other programs that exclude the workers from obtaining landed immigrant status.

There are between 250,000 and 400,000 non-status people living in Canada, representing the most exploitable and vulnerable portions of the population. This large portion of foreign labour causes monetary flow from the global North to the global South in the form of remittances, which were estimated at $3 trillion in 2009.

The Canadian migrant labour system is constantly evolving and new industries are continually being introduced. “There are some who come for sugar, for maple syrup, and others for mining,” said Van Doorne. “So it’s evolving and changing very quickly.”

Labour markets are also broadening, Galvez mentioned, indicating Honduras and El Salvador as likely partners for the LSPP. Similarly manipulative systems include the Live-In Caregiver program, placement agencies, and day labourers.

Galvez highlighted the various social groups that were traditionally discriminated against and used through economies of coercion: “Before there were migrants there were prisoners…before that there were war prisoners, using Germans and Japanese as slaves for the farmers; before that there were orphans from Britain.”

In the spirit of solidarity, groups such as No One Is Illegal, Solidarity Across Borders, and the Immigrant Workers Centre have been instrumental in advocating for migrant justice. They work toward putting an end to deportations, decolonizing borders, granting status for all, and advocate freedom of movement and respect for all migrant workers. “The system is set up to have people come and be used as labourers but not have any rights. So what [we] organize around is the right for people to stay and to have access to the same rights that any permanent resident or citizen would have here; to not live in fear of being deported and to have access to all that they need and not feel afraid that they’ll be reprimanded,” said Malla.

The plight of migrant workers in Saint-Rémi reveals injustice that is in some ways well hidden. The intricate manipulation of this industry remains skilfully veiled from the public eye through the social isolation of its workers and the denial of their rights. The immigration system is rapidly changing, allowing labourers to come when it’s convenient and deporting them when it isn’t so convenient. Monetary profits are being prioritized before human well-being, and the work of grassroots activists are now playing a critical role in changing this reality and providing hope for marginalized labourers to be able to organize themselves and demand the rights that any citizen deserves.