GUATEMALA CITY—When Jose Sicajau left his community in Guatemala to participate in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, he hoped to make enough money doing seasonal agriculture work to be able to provide for his family back home.
But like many other workers who have spoken out against labour rights abuses in Canada, he found himself blacklisted from the program after launching an official complaint against the owner of the farm where he worked in rural Quebec.
Since 2003, when Canada introduced the “lower-skill” category into the Temporary Foreign Worker program (TFWP), hundreds of thousands of temporary visas have been granted each year to migrants working in the garment industry, agriculture, care-giving, and construction and cleaning professions, among other so-called “lower-skill” trades.
In the last decade, the number of temporary workers has grown substantially, from almost 180,000 in 2004 to nearly 445,000 in 2011. Teck Resources, Loblaws, Canadian Tire and Blackberry are some of the Canadian companies that employ the highest number of workers under the TFWP. But according to Alfredo Barahona, migrant-relations coordinator of Canadian NGO KAIROS, the lack of oversight in this program has posed many problems for migrant workers.
“There are more and more incidents reported in Canadian media about accidents, where migrant workers are getting injured and even dying on the job,” Barahona told The Dominion in a phone interview. He explained that although workers pay Canadian taxes and into social programs such as unemployment insurance, they are generally unable to receive any of those benefits.
The workers’ status is so temporary and precarious that it lends itself to labour abuses and other human rights violations. Barahona said that migrant workers in the TFWP are usually recruited through private agencies lacking in oversight and are given single-entry visas tied to one particular employer. As a result, they have little access to mechanisms for denouncing labour-rights violations without risking having their status revoked.
Jose Sicajau was one of the first workers from Guatemala to participate in the TFWP when it was piloted in 2003, and he returned to rural Quebec to work on the same farm for several years. In 2006, Sicajau launched an official complaint with several others against his Canadian employer, after witnessing the employer physically and verbally assault a Mexican migrant working on the same farm.
A few months after returning to Guatemala in October of that year, the recruitment agency approached him to demand an official retraction of the complaint. “They wanted to make an example of us so that other migrant workers wouldn’t speak out,” he told The Dominion. Sicajau did not retract the complaint, and when he applied to return to Canada the next year under the TFWP, he was denied without explanation.
Alongside 60 other Guatemalans who found themselves expelled from the program with no official reason or appeal process, Sicajau founded the Guatemalan Association United for Our Rights (AGUND) in 2011. Today he is the organization’s current president.
AGUND’s initial concern was to find out why the workers had been expelled from the program and to be able to return to work. For many migrants, a program like the TFWP offers an opportunity to work for higher wages than they might get back home, allowing them to send back remittances to help feed their families. “It is certainly not all bad,” says Sicajau. “Maybe out of 100 stories, there are five or ten who have had bad experiences and their rights violated. But what can you expect from a program that has little regulation and almost no oversight?”
According to Father Juan Luis, from Guatemala’s Parish of Human Mobility based in Guatemala City, it is important to recognize the many reasons why people migrate to find work outside of their communities, in order to understand the implications of programs like the TFWP.
“Guatemala is a land filled with freshly spilled blood,” he told The Dominion, pointing out not only the high levels of violent crime that currently exist in the country, but also historical and continuing state violence. Many people are still looking for family members who were disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict, and mass graves continue to be found with bodies of those killed in the state-sponsored mass killings leading to acts of genocide.
Human rights defenders in the country, many of whom are pushing for justice for past state-sponsored violence, continue to face high levels of threats, kidnappings, assaults and assassinations. This, combined with the rapid growth of the war on narcotrafficking and organized crime in many parts of Guatemala, has produced a daily per-capita murder rate that is one of the highest in the world.
“Much of this violence is pushing people out of their communities and forcing them to seek work elsewhere,” he said. He explained that the majority of this out-migration occurs undocumented, but that some people are attempting to flee this violence through programs like the TFWP.
“The principal cause of migration, however, has always been structural impoverishment,” said Father Luis. “The violence that exists in this country is only a manifestation of the unequal distribution of resources and unequal access to land.”
The wide expansion of internationally owned plantations growing crops for export, such as bananas and coffee, has led to massive forced evictions of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. National and foreign companies growing crops such as African palm and sugarcane have converted many of Guatemala’s most fertile soils into plantations for biofuel production.
Father Luis added that the development of hydroelectric dams and transnational mining projects—many of which are Canadian—are having similar effects, pushing people off their lands and into increasingly precarious living situations.
“Canadian companies are coming and taking gold from Guatemala, and our government is handing it to them on a silver platter,” said Father Luis. “They talk about development, but development for whom? How much wealth is leaving the country? People have to pay a high price to live on top of so much gold.”
Canadian companies are extracting many of Guatemala’s resources—both mineral and labour resources. “Without a doubt,” said Father Luis, “there are many families who have benefited from this work [in the TFWP], who have been able to provide medicine for their children, provide them with housing, food and education. But because of this structural impoverishment that sees many Guatemalans exploited on a daily basis, many are willing to work in exploitative conditions if they are being paid.”
In the words of AGUND’s Jose Sicajau, “In many cases, all they are recruiting for are strong arms, capable of doing physically demanding work. Sometimes they are surprised when whole bodies—entire human beings—show up. We are people with histories, experiences and families, and that’s often not taken into account.”
Organizations like AGUND, the Guatemalan Parish of Human Mobility and KAIROS are calling for reforms to this program, to clarify the rights of workers and the Canadian government’s responsibility to oversee it effectively and to guarantee labour rights.
According to AGUND, a bilateral agreement between Canada and Guatemala—something which does not currently exist—could clearly outline these responsibilities and standardize recruitment agencies in order to prevent corruption and false promises. All workers should be able to sign a contract, translated into a language they speak, that clearly outlines working and living conditions, hourly wages and working hours.
Meanwhile, KAIROS is petitioning the Canadian government to provide access to settlement services, to ensure that work permits are not tied to a single employer, and to establish an efficient and mandatory national system to monitor employers who break the law. According to Barahona, “There is no question that it is the temporary nature of their immigration status that makes [migrants] vulnerable. Canada should be looking at coming up with alternatives to create paths to permanent residency and not treat migrant workers like a commodity.”
Barahona pointed out that Canada’s economy has historically been built on migration and migrant labour. “But how are we going about that?” he asked. “Not everyone is wanting to come to Canada. But those who are wanting to come to Canada need to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Val Croft lives in Guatemala City, accompanying human rights defenders who receive threats for their work, and is actively involved in issues related to corporate accountability.