ImmigrationAdvocates of immigration reform eye Canada’s guest worker program as a model

Published 9 January 2013

When many Mexicans head north for seasonal work, they no longer have to smuggle their way through the U.S.–Mexican border; now they can hop a fight to Canada; in a government-to-government deal between Mexico and Canada, almost 16,000 temporary Mexican workers are able to earn good wages in Canada as part of a guest worker program; as discussions about immigration reform in the United States continue, some eye the Canadian guest worker program as a model to be emulated

When many Mexicans head north for seasonal work, they no longer have to smuggle their way through the U.S.–Mexican border. Now they can hop a fight to Canada.

In a government-to-government deal between Mexico and Canada, almost 16,000 temporary Mexican workers are able to earn good wages in Canada as part of a guest worker program.

The Washington Post reports that  Mexican officials view this agreement as a  model for an expanded guest worker program in the United States.

 Discussions of immigration reform in the United States already  include proposals for an expansion of temporary worker programs to meet the U.S. demand for legal low-skilled labor.

Currently the United  States gives out about 50,000 seasonal agricultural visas every year, and almost all of them go to Mexican workers.  U.S. farmers who hire immigrant workers, immigrant advocate groups, labor unions, and Mexican officials all say, however, that the current system is a complete mess, leaving people vulnerable to swindlers and shady recruiters who cheat poor Mexicans out of thousands of dollars.

The result is that  more Mexican seasonal workers are now heading to Canada, where the application process is  easier and the pay is better.

The U.S. economic downturn  also hurt  demand for seasonal workers.

 Mexican officials, who some time ago stopped working with the U.S. consulates in Mexico on bringing workers to America legally, are now  working exclusively with Canada. They plann to triple the number of workers who go  north, where workers are paid hourly wages of up to $10, which is as much as they might earn in a day in Mexico.

Overall, almost as many Mexicans have been  leaving the United Ststaes as the number of Mexicans coming in, a situation of growing concerns to industries  such as agriculture, construction, and hospitality which are  highly dependent on low-paid immigrant labor. According to some experts, this could be a continuing trend.

“For anybody who believes that there will be a wild and endless flow of [Mexican migrants] into the future, that’s just not realistic,” Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations at the American Nursery and Landscape Association, told the Washington Post.

Most recruits for Canada’s guest worker program are screened by Mexican officials based on education, skills, and health, but many of the workers are returnees who employers have requested to come back.

Precautions are taken to make sure all workers return to Mexico when their work is done.

Only married men, preferably with young children, can be accepted into the program and their families cannot join them. Also, a cut of the worker’s wages are placed into a Canadian pension fund which the workers can  receive only once they return home.

The Post notes that there are  drawbacks to the program as well.

Once the workers arrive in Canada, they are forced to work up to fifteen hours a day without overtime pay. They live in trailers or barracks. Contractual agreements forbid them to drink alcohol, entertain women, and socialize with workers from other farms.

“People look to Canada as a model for their success at making temporary workers truly temporary,” David FitzGerald, an immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego told the Post. “But the way they are prevented from staying is by socially isolating them to an extreme degree, controlling their movements and systematically preventing them from interacting with Canadian society,” he said.

“From a labor rights perspective, it’s troubling, but it’s appealing to policymakers because it keeps the workers temporary,” FitzGerald added.

Despite the drawbacks, many of the workers do not complain, saying the work is fair, the pay is good, and some protection is available: when treated unfairly by the employers, the Mexican consulate steps in.

“The consulate threatens to take away their Mexicans, and usually that’s enough,” Armando Tenorio, who first worked in Quebec tending flowers and herbs inside a massive greenhouse, told the Post.

As good as the program is for the workers, the massive amounts of time away from their families do make things harder, even if they do return home with thousands of dollars in savings.

“Honestly, I’d rather be able to do work in the United States and bring my family with me,” Tenorio told the Post. “But only with a visa.”

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