Trabajadores temporales en Canadá: Cruzar fronteras en tiempos de pandemia
On 15 April 2020, 146 Mexican temporary workers landed in Vancouver, in British Columbia. These seasonal agricultural workers were welcomed with an unusual scene: an almost empty airport, face-masks, social distancing measures, and a mandatory two-week quarantine in a local hotel with paid expenses, before going to work on their assigned farms. This spring, the Canadian government declared these and other foreign temporary workers as essential for the Canadian economy all across the country, allowing them to cross borders right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds more seasonal agricultural workers have arrived in Vancouver this year.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, in Canada, as in other places around the world, ‘essential’ workers have been recognised and applauded as the sector of the economy that makes the supply chain possible: health workers, but also supermarket employees, small grocery shop workers, and those who provide services. However, not everyone gets the same recognition – in the highly segmented Canadian economy, those who are at the bottom of the workforce have provided the invisible labour needed to maintain the supply chain – and bring food to the tables of Canadian people.
Mexican agricultural workers have long been associated with migration to North America. Thousands of these workers have been officially travelling to Canada since 1974, as part of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Apples, blueberries, and other vegetables that are staples of the Canadian tables are possible only because of the temporary workers that cross borders every year to work in farms, earning minimum wages, from seeding season in early spring, until the end of the harvesting season, sending revenues to their communities in Mexico. Last year, temporary workers filled more than 50,000 farming and agricultural jobs, but this year, the pandemic has made mobility much more difficult, regulated, and risky.
These workers, dubbed the ‘Petateros’ (after the working program name in Spanish – Programa de Trabajadores Agrícolas Temporales, PTAT), have at other times complained of unfair treatment, discrimination, and the inflexibility of the contracts that tie them to specific farms for the duration of their stay in Canada. Once they arrive in Canada, they are bound to a contract with their employers, who provide basic housing (often in crowded conditions), but depending on the province, no other perks - such as food. Workers have to pay for their own plane tickets, too.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, temporary workers have provided essential labour to the agricultural sector. Local labour is not always as available or cost-effective as temporary migrant work. With the current state of things, some questions have been raised: would Canadian citizens be willing to commit to the hard work of farming? Would unemployed people be willing and able to commit to harvesting the food needed to arrive at Canadian tables? A question to ponder for many of the unemployed who have filed for temporary COVID-19 benefits. Even students, who will be largely unemployed this summer due to the crumbling COVID-19 economy, are not being considered a realistic choice, as instruction would reopen in September, well before the end of the harvesting season, and would not be motivated to take on farming or agricultural jobs anyway since they have been contemplated for federal aid to compensate for the projected loss of summer jobs.
Because of the travel restrictions that have followed the COVID-19 pandemic, some Canadian farms have been unable to get the much-needed workers in time for the season – from seeding to harvest. The local labour force is often not skilled enough, nor can be trained in a timely way, nor is willing to work under hard conditions. In the province of Quebec, temporary workers have been recognised as an efficient and skilled workforce.
British Columbia, a province whose agricultural sector relies heavily on farming specific products, has been lucky to allow the timely entry of the seasonal workers – the ‘Petateros’. In the past, Mexican workers have accounted for 51% of the temporary workers (followed by Guatemalan and Jamaican). The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has given some advantages both to the sending and receiving governments. Yet, the reality is that Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) gives workers little room to move once in Canada. Mostly men, predominantly married with dependents, temporary workers are ineligible to apply for permanent residence in the country. They are welcome to work, but on the condition that they will not overstay. Conditions in the pandemic are not different.
After the entry of the temporary workers, and although preventive measures were taken to combat the spread of the virus (such as the two-week quarantine), cases of COVID-19 have already been identified in farms in British Columbia. In Kelowna, British Columbia, a region known for its seasonal crops of 15,000 acres of cherries, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, one farm had 14 cases of COVID-19 among its workers (the number was later confirmed by media to have reached 23 cases).
This happened in spite of the social distancing measures that farms are being required to take against the risk of the virus. Efforts were made, by the local community and non-profit organisations, to feed the sick workers while quarantined, while the employing farms in B.C. are still not legally required to provide food to their temporary workers. The situation has sparked a call for protective measures for the vulnerable temporary workers: better housing conditions, a safer working environment, and the possibility to advocate for workers’ rights, since they are not legally allowed (because of their contracts) to bargain, unionise, or make any changes in their programmes. Other worker organisations have spoken for further protections against the virus.
Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges to the mobilisation of workers across boundaries. It also makes visible the challenges and the patterns of inequality and vulnerability of the Canadian labour market. The time is ripe for that discussion.
Dr. Alfaro is an instructor of Sociology of Work at Columbia College, in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches Sociology of Work and Comparative Ethnic Studies. An immigrant herself, she is interested in the intersection of work, ethnicity, and the diverse experiences of people who move across borders.