Montréal is a long way from Guatemala City, physically and culturally. Yet, in 2023, about 13,000 Guatemalans journeyed 5,600 kilometres to Québec to work in agriculture.
Les Productions Margiric, located in Laval about 30 minutes north of Montréal, is one recurring destination for some of these workers. Here, several generations of the Gibouleau family have been expanding their farm since 1945. And today, Martin Gibouleau along with his brother Jocelyn and cousin Jean-François, grow more than 2,000 acres of vegetables and cantaloupes in no small part due to the more than 250 temporary foreign workers who work there every year.
Edvin Armando Del Cid Arrendondo is one of their farm workers. He’s from the village of El Sapote, in the municipality of Santa María Ixhuatán and has participated in the Québec temporary foreign worker program for eight years.
“I come from a family of limited resources,” says Arrendondo. “But that did not prevent me from being taught human values and working in the fields since I was seven years old. Work in agriculture has been the breadwinner for my family to this day.”
He continues: “The best thing about working at Les Productions Margiric is that I can work for a period of half a year, making the most of my time to save money and then I have the possibility of returning to my country to live with my family.”
These arrangements work well for the field vegetable growing season. Martin Gibouleau explains, “I rely on many workers for the harvesting season because my production is very large and the turnaround for my product is very short, not like apples or potatoes.”
In 1976, the Gibouleau family started with Mexican workers but in 2003 added Guatemala to diversify the workforce. As a result, Guatemala opened a consulate in Montreal with the condition that there would be the same kind of relationship as with Mexico.
“We have a Latin understanding here that workers are part of the family,” explains Fernando Borja, the tri-lingual executive director, of FERME Québec for the last 15 years. “Most of our farm employers speak Spanish.”
FERME Québec is the non-profit agency that looks after managing the files for about 20,000 migrant workers every year, providing service to about 70 per cent of the temporary worker market in the province. About 2,000 farm employers representing pork, dairy and horticultural farms, pay an annual membership fee plus a small fee per worker each growing season.
These fees pay for FERME’s multicultural, full-time staff of 36 as well as five part-time employees. Beyond year-round administration, FERME’s staff are also deployed to the airport to welcome all workers arriving in Québec at the beginning of the season, and then again at the end to assist with their departures.
Looking to South America and Africa
Additional to the Guatemalan work force, Mexico sent 6,000 workers to Québec in 2023. The balance of approximately 1000 workers came from El Salvador, Honduras, and surprisingly, the French-speaking country of Madagascar. This island off the eastern coast of Africa is participating in a program to provide mechanics, electro-mechanics and truck drivers interested in moving to Canada.
“From Madagascar, we have gone from 20 to 200 workers in three years,” says Borja. “These workers are looking for permanent residency in two or three years.”
The need for workers continues to grow. The dairy sector along with expansion of Québec’s greenhouse industry is fuelling demand. FERME is now exploring using Colombia as a new source of workers, particularly for the province’s dairy farmers.
“We have tried Tunisia and will be trying Morocco in the fall of 2023,” adds Borja. “These countries are more advanced in their visa requirements, looking for a one-year commitment.”
Borja points out that the average length of contract under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is 24 weeks. With the aforementioned growth in the greenhouse sector, there is a new need for year-round employees.
In May 2023, a project was launched to provide social services to workers in remote areas. A FERME manager and four contracted assistants visited farm workers around the province, conducting information workshops on various topics including responsible alcohol consumption, how to manage money, and ways to adapt to life in Québec.
“We present these situations in a humorous way so that the employees see themselves in these common predicaments,” says Borja. “These are workers who are used to making $100/week and are now making $1,000 per week. We explain that it’s not important to have the nicest cell phone, for example.”
The goal for the 2023 pilot was to reach 1,000 farms and 10,000 workers. More than 70 per cent of that target was achieved by mid-October 2023.
“There’s a social outreach part of our FERME team called CONTIGO that works with local community groups to encourage activities such as fishing, cooking lessons, BBQs and soccer,” says Borja. It’s connected to funding by the federal government through Immigrant Québec.
And there’s Centre de familles latino-américaines à Montréal Québec (CAFLA), an organization also funded by Immigrant Québec that’s available to help Latin Americans with cultural integration issues. Its call centre is available 7 am to midnight daily, offering telehealth as well as psychological support in Spanish.
Under the Senate’s lens
The treatment of foreign temporary workers is currently under the microscope of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science & Technology which has been researching and traveling the country since November 2022. The committee, chaired by Senator Ratna Omidvar visited farms and lobster processing plants in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in early September 2023.
In a recent interview with The Grower, Senator Omidvar said, “The committee is looking at the issue of migrant workers because they are becoming a larger part of the labour workforce in agriculture, trucking, retail and hospitality.
We’re interested in worker protections as well as employer needs. We’ve heard from employers and their associations, migrant workers and their associations. We visited farms in New Brunswick and PEI to get to the truth.”
Omidvar went on to observe, “The system is broken for both sides. Employers complain that they can’t get workers in time for the growing season. The turn-around time on Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) is lengthy. What struck me most is that every employer said they would have to shut down business without these migrant workers.”
To date, the committee has heard from the Québec-based Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers. The Senate committee is deliberating on what they’ve heard and seen. Expect the report in March 2024.
In the interim, the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) has taken to heart the need for a more diverse source of temporary foreign workers. Looking to FERME Québec’s success in Central America, the OFVGA is actively exploring a pilot with the El Salvador government. Stefan Larrass, OFVGA senior policy advisor, labour, reports that several Ontario growers are currently participating, with activities planned to connect growers with a visiting delegation from El Salvador later this fall.
As Fernando Borja and his staff capably manage the logistics of thousands of workers returning home, he observes, ““It would be good for the Canadian government to defend the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. There are thousands of good actions by farmers every day.”