A record close to 23,800 temporary foreign workers came to work in Quebec in 2021. La Presse went to meet some of them at Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau airport in Montreal. Observation: they are eager to work. But at what cost?

“If we didn’t have these workers, there would be no agriculture in Quebec,” says Annie-Claude Bélisle, of the berry-producing farm A. Bélisle et Fils. We need them. ” Met by La Presse at the Montreal airport, she is preparing to welcome 12 new Guatemalan workers to bring them back to the family farm in Saint-Eustache.

The number of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) jumped in Quebec in 2021, from about 17,035 to 23,795, an increase of more than 6,000 workers, an all-time high, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada .

This figure is not likely to decrease in 2022 with the joint announcement by the federal and provincial governments last January of increased immigration thresholds to allow certain sectors to hire 20% temporary foreign workers, rather than 10%.

“This year, there are a lot more workers and a lot more employers,” observes Isabelle St-Pierre, prevention and compliance coordinator at the Fondation des entreprises en recruitment de main-d’oeuvre agricole agricole (FERME), met with on the spot. “Every year, it increases,” adds Michel Pilon, director of the Network for Assistance to Migrant Agricultural Workers of Quebec (RATTMAQ).

However, the precarious status of temporary foreign workers is “a big problem,” said Cheolki Yoon, postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and volunteer for the Center for Immigrant Workers. According to him, the balance of power between employers and these workers is weakened by the presence of closed work permits. “They are really dependent on the will of employers and they don’t dare to challenge abusive situations,” he says. An observation confirmed by preliminary data from a study conducted in Quebec by Acfas (see tab 2).

Wednesday morning, a charter plane from Guatemala landed in Montreal. On board, 182 Guatemalan workers, tired from a long journey. “I’m very excited,” says 25-year-old José López, still waiting in line in the international arrivals section. It is his first time in Quebec, he does not yet know where he will settle. “I feel good, I can’t wait to work!” »

A little further on, Samuel Bautista is returning for the fourth year to Serres Mirabel (Savoura). “I like working here,” he says.

A real committee welcomes travelers, in several stages, like a well-oiled machine. First, the RATTMAQ distributes sheets in Spanish explaining their rights and responsibilities. Workers can also leave their phone number, where they will be sent explanatory YouTube videos. The idea: that they know where to turn, in case of trouble.

Second stop: the Guatemalan consulate, on site for the occasion. “You have the right to keep your phone, your passport, your money…” a consulate worker lists to each group of workers. She then directs them to a kiosk where bottles of water, clementines and granola bars are distributed.

Nelson Rafael Olivero, Consul General of Guatemala in Montreal, welcomes each worker.

The workers are then directed to another area of ​​the airport where they are met by Public Health employees, then undergo random screening tests for COVID-19 before watching a video on their rights, learns La Presse. Upon their return, they are directed to buses from FARM, or from their employers, ready to take them to their future workplaces, anywhere in the province.

“There is a lack of knowledge about their rights,” observes Cheolki Yoon. But even knowing there is a violation, often workers accept the situation because they want to stay here. »

In 2021, the RATTMAQ defended the rights of 579 temporary foreign workers, a significant increase compared to the previous year, specifies Michel Pilon.

At the airport, the employers we met have no kind words for those who neglect the working conditions of these workers. “Seeing that is disturbing,” says Annie-Claude Bélisle. Me, it breaks my heart because I grew up with these workers. »

“It’s shocking,” adds Anibal Garcia. The 30-year-old man himself arrived as a temporary foreign worker in 2010. He is now married and established in Quebec, and works as an interpreter for L’Équipoule in Marieville. “Besides, we come to help the country!” »

At his side, Alain Beaudry, driver at L’Équipoule, does not budge: “Those companies shouldn’t exist. »



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