Boom in the Beauce: How migrant workers are helping southern Quebec thrive

A pork processing plant in Vallée-Jonction, Que., has recruited workers from the two island nations off the coast of eastern Africa to help fill a gap in workers. People in town are working hard to make them feel welcome and encourage them to stay.

Dozens of workers from Madagascar and Mauritius have moved to the Beauce region to work for Olymel

Rabeson Rajo Avotra, middle, stands with a group of workers from Madagascar and Mauritius who've moved to Vallée-Jonction to work for meat-processing plant Olymel. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

As snowbanks slowly melt away in the March sun, a cool breeze fills the air outside the Olymel meat processing plant in Vallée Jonction, Que., about 70 kilometres south of Quebec City.

It's a warm spring day in the Beauce region, but Rabeson Rajo Avotra's body language says otherwise. He stuffs his hands deep into the pockets of his coat.

"The cold was the first thing that was welcoming us," said the 33-year-old with a laugh.

Rajo Avotra is part of a contingent of 40 people who moved to the Beauce from Madagascar and Mauritius, two island nations east of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean.

They've been hired as temporary foreign workers by the Olymel meat company to process pork at its plant. The Beauce, like many regions of Quebec, is experiencing a severe shortage of workers.

Madagascar is a former French colony, and many in nearby Mauritius also speak French. Another 80 men and women from both countries are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

Help (desperately) wanted 

With a population just shy of 2,000, there are 2,200 jobs in Vallée-Jonction, according to municipal councillor Marthe Leclerc.

She is in charge of the newcomers' file for Olymel.

More than half of those jobs are with the company and workers commute from all over the region to work at the plant. 

Without enough workers, Leclerc says the company would be forced to close up shop and move elsewhere.

Vallée-Jonction municipal councillor, Marthe Leclerc, says temporary foreign workers are necessary to keep big business in the Beauce. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

"If tomorrow morning Vallée-Jonction lost Olymel, it would be senseless," she explained. 

"We are lucky to have these people."

Search for better life

Rajo Avotra's journey to Quebec started when he came across a job posting at Olymel on Facebook. At the time, he was living in Mauritius, where he was working for a textile factory.

He thought it would a great opportunity and hopes to eventually obtain his Canadian citizenship.

Rajo Avotra says the unexpected hospitality he received when he arrived in Quebec is also motivating him to stay in Canada.

"You are an awesome people, I dare say," he said with a grin.

Taste of home

Sylvain Roy is one of the people who made sure Rajo Avotra, along with the other newcomers, received a heartwarming welcome in Vallée-Jonction.

He owns Les Marchés Tradition Vallée-Jonction, a small supermarket minutes away from the Olymel plant.

Roy moved to the area two years ago, and took over the grocery store after he lost his job in a manufacturing company in the Beauce.
Grocer Sylvain Roy stands next to a basket of plantains, food he ordered to welcome the workers from Madagascar and Mauritius. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

"I understand the people that are coming here — it's to learn a new job," he said. "I know what it is [like]."

But Roy didn't have to adapt to a new diet and flavours. 

He made it his mission to make sure the newcomers can still have a taste of home. Roy started selling plantains and yuca, popular produce found in Madagascar and Mauritius.

Community steps up

Of the 40 workers that arrived in March, seven of them now call Vallée-Jonction home — including Rajo Avotra. The rest live in the nearby communities of Sainte-Marie and Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce.

They had help settling in, with the community donating furniture and clothes.

Leclerc says the workers even have chaperones to help with everything from grocery shopping, to operating a washing machine, to understanding Québécois expressions.

"It's in our DNA to be warm and welcoming," she said.

Putting down roots

Richard Vigneault, a spokesperson for Olymel, is also hoping the new recruits stay in Quebec.

Back in 2009, the company hired 80 temporary foreign workers from Madagascar and Mauritius to work at an Olymel plant in the Lanaudière region.

Vigneault says 70 of the workers are still with the company, with many having received their Canadian citizenship, while others are in the process of obtaining it.

He says applying for the federal temporary foreign worker program is expensive and time consuming, but he admits, its in Olymel's interests that workers apply for residency.
The Olymel meat processing company has brought 40 men and women from Madagascar and Mauritius to work at its plant in Vallée-Jonction. Roughly 80 more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

"We're still looking for Canadians or Quebecers to get hired at our plants, and this is the first step of any recruiting process," he said.

But with the low unemployment rate across Quebec, the company was left with no choice but to look internationally.

Vigneault credits the hard work of small town communities for creating a welcoming environment, motivating the temporary foreign workers to stay in Quebec, and call the province home.