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U.S. looking at Canada guest-worker program as model




USA Today


Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program extends eight-month contracts to individuals willing to work low-skilled agricultural jobs with certain guarantees.

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USA Today

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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — Guillermo Hernandez Alcantar could provide a window into the future of migrant workers in the United States.

He had arrived in Canada from Mexico three days before. The journey brought him hundreds of miles north on the guarantee of work and stability — to pick the grapes that locals will not. He came as a legal guest worker.

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"Right now, the Mexican workers have not finished arriving," Hernandez Alcantar said on a brisk morning in March. "By May, they will all be here."

He needed to buy a jacket, so he mounted a well-worn Huffy 10-speed bicycle, one of many leaning up against the two worker dormitories, and rode off, passing through the vineyards that stretch the length of Line 1 Road. Though he spoke little English, he knew he could get by in town without the language skills.

Others made that clear to him before he arrived in Canada.

Hernandez Alcantar participates in Canada's long-established Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Its model could help the U.S. create the framework for a revamped guest-worker program that is a key element in current U.S. immigration-reform proposals.

The Senate has passed a provision that allows up to 337,000 foreign workers to receive three-year work visas to do farm labor in the U.S. at a rate of pay of $9.64 to $11.87 an hour. A House version, still being debated, allows up to 500,000 workers a year for up to 18 months for seasonal work and three years for non-seasonal work, with pay at either state minimum or prevailing wage.

The Senate also has passed a provision that would provide an accelerated path to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers. The House bill does not provide a path to citizenship.

Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, established in 1966 as a bilateral agreement between Canada and Jamaica and later expanded to include Mexico and other countries, extends eight-month contracts to individuals willing to work low-skilled agricultural jobs with guarantees of housing, health care, wage standards and partial reimbursement for travel.

Those crafting new legislation in the United States have looked at the Canadian program, according to Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. She said it is a good model, except that Canada — employing an agricultural workforce of 280,000 in 2011 — has much smaller labor needs than the United States.

The one key factor that separates Canadian employers from their southern neighbors also physically ensures that they adhere to the authorized, state-regulated guest-worker program: geography.

"The undocumented pool in Canada is very small because, well, you just can't get here easily," said Ken Forth, a third-generation farmer and president of Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Service. The organization coordinates seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario, Canada.

Bilateral framework

Pine planks run the length of Forth's Lynden, Ontario, office, providing a rustic backdrop for the abundance of framed photos and newspaper clippings hung throughout. The collection reveals two things for which he has long been recognized: stock-car racing and the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

Forth remembers how the program got its start back in the 1960s.

"Some farmers went to Jamaica. They saw a lot of guys with no work," Forth said. "Then, they came back home to Canada, where they had a lot of work but no workers. So, they put a pilot program together with the Canadian government, and we brought 264 Jamaican workers in. It was a success."

By 1976, other countries had signed bilateral agreements to be included in the seasonal-worker program: Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and Mexico.

According to Forth, the program's success lies in the protections for both the workers and employers.

Each sending country negotiates with the Canadian government to set the objectives of the program and detail each party's role in workers' transportation, supervision and advocacy. The framework is designed to safeguard workers from exploitive recruiting practices.

Once the workers are in Canada, liaison-service officers from the sending countries monitor the migrants' payments, living and working conditions, and health needs.

"We want support for those workers from their own folks," Forth said. "We have a relationship with those embassies and with their governments.

"Jamaica has seven people on the road every day in this province — in this province — looking after their guys. If there is an issue on the farm, if there is an issue at home, they'll help resolve it. If there is an argument between workers, they'll come out and iron that out. If there is a problem between an employer and a worker, they can help with that."

The guest-worker proposal included in the new U.S. immigration-reform bill includes no such framework.

The American Farm Bureau anticipates that, in the long run, the United States' entire agricultural workforce will come from the new program. The scope is too large to implement bilateral agreements, according to Boswell.

"We think of our program as not bilateral," she said. "They could come from anywhere. ... I think, ultimately, it would be any workers that wanted to come into this country to provide better for their family, who could do that better with a temporary job in the United States than in their home country."

Canada has a non-seasonal model called the Temporary Foreign Workers agricultural stream, established in 2002 for low-skill occupations including production of commodities that are not seasonal in nature, like year-round greenhouse flowers and mushrooms.

Under that program, employers can bring workers from any country for up to 24 months at a time without a standard employment contract. The number of workers coming in the program is much smaller, 7,500 workers in 2012 compared with 30,000 in the seasonal program, but it is increasing.

Forth said he sees problems in allowing a free flow of workers coming from any sending nation.

He said temporary workers program provides no recourse for workers who get sick, hurt or abused on the job, nor does it provide a way for employers to easily correct problems.

"There is nobody those people can call, and that makes us uneasy," Forth said. "We don't want that. In the SAWP program, if we have an issue with one country, we can call their Ministry of Labor. We can call those people and say, 'You know what? This is off the rails here — we've got to get this fixed.'

"That's why we don't want to deal with all the countries of the world. It would be a mess, and we wouldn't have a relationship."

Models criticized

Labor advocates say that the seasonal workers program guidelines that tie migrants to a single employer create a fear of reprisal if a worker complains and that the temporary workers program has a deep lack of oversight and is open to exploitive recruiting practices within the sending countries.

Both programs are flawed, according to Stan Raper, national representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Canada.

"Both programs assume that the employers are good. Both programs assume that there is provincial or federal regulation and enforcement that will assist these workers," Raper said. "I say 'assume' because the reality on the ground is not showing that."

If complaints are filed, Raper said federal regulators pass the buck to provincial regulators, who say they don't have any money to enforce the agreements.

But Forth said every year, farmers, representatives from the Canadian government, the sending countries and their liaison services all sit together and go over problems with the program. And the problems are few.

"We don't have anything to hide. And this program doesn't have anything to hide," Forth said. "Does it work perfect? No. Does it work almost perfect? Yes, it does."

Raper disagrees.

"What we have is a growth industry of cheap, exploitable labor coming into Canada," he said. "And we're saying, 'We need to make some revisions.' Yes, the ag sector may need workers. But it's how they're treated. Do they have a path to citizenship? Should they have occupational health and safety standards? There are all kinds of flaws."


Elda Boniche started her delivery service in 2009, importing food and snacks familiar to migrant workers and delivering them, once a week, to the rural clusters where they live.

"We go to the farms with the truck because they don't have transportation out there," Boniche said. "They come to town once a week to shop. But in the local supermarkets, they're not going to find the products that we offer them. Tortillas, chile peppers, Jarritos (Mexican sodas) — basic products that make them feel connected to their home countries."

Boniche arrived in Ontario in 2002 from Costa Rica, her five children in tow.

"Like all immigrants, I came to look for better opportunities for my children," she said.

She said the Canadian programs offer migrant workers an opportunity they would not otherwise have.

"Many of them don't have a career. They don't have a way to make money in their country," Boniche said. "They come and work here to pay for the higher education of their children. So, if we look at it from the social aspect of their home countries, there will be more professionals and they'll have kids and grandkids with a better way of life."

She thinks the Canadian models would be ideal for the United States.

"I think that a program like this helps so that, instead of arriving to be exploited, workers arrive with a job that gives them another life option."

For the workers, it's not just about survival, according to Forth. It's about investment. This is their access to capital.

And even without a mandatory requirement for the workers to return to their sending countries, Forth thinks the majority of workers choose to return to the familiarity of home.

"There are some people that have a huge Canadian ego and think, 'Everybody wants to live in Canada.' Everybody does not," Forth said. "One guy worked for me for 29 years. I said, 'Lloyd, would you ever want to live here?' He said, 'If I'd wanted to live here, I'd have run away 25 years ago. I've got a good thing going. I work here six or seven months, and I go home to my wife, and I build a nice house, and I have a nice family, and I have a nice life."

"And besides," Lloyd told Forth, "it's too cold here."

Haden reports for the Cronkite Borderlands Initiative, a program of Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism.

File Attachments


Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers and General farm workers

Content types

Policy analysis

Target groups

Public awareness, Unions, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

United States, Federal, Jamaica, and National relevance

Spheres of activity

Political science