Guatemalan workers disappear from Quebec farms as work permits end

Nearly 100 seasonal workers from Guatemala are unaccounted for as Quebec's growing season comes to an end. The temporary foreign workers are going off-grid because of federal legislation that limits their work permits to four years.

Legislation limits some temporary foreign workers to 4 consecutive years, leading some to go off-grid

There are about 4,000 seasonal workers from Guatemala in Quebec. (Jason Kryk/Canadian Press)

An unprecedented number of seasonal workers from Guatemala have disappeared from Quebec farms as they seek to avoid being sent home at the end of the growing season. 

In past years a handful of workers would go off-grid come fall, but this year nearly 100 are unaccounted for, according to an organization that helps bring them to the province.

Many are facing the end of the four-year work permits that were first implemented in 2011 as part of changes brought to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program by the previous Conservative government, said Denis Hamel, the head of the organization, which goes by its French acronym, FERME.

After reaching their four-year limit, workers must leave the country and wait another four years for a fresh work permit. It is known as the "four-in and four-out" rule.

"They face a dilemma," Hamel told CBC Montreal's Daybreak. 

"Either they go back to their country for four years or stay here illegally and try to find a job to be able to send money to their family, knowing that if they get caught by police or the border services agency, they will be sent back and they won't ever be able to come back to Canada or the U.S."

Temporary foreign workers are often used in agriculture and fishing industries. (CBC)

Long-time workers forced to leave

Hamel said the four-year cap also hurts producers and processors in Quebec's agriculture sector, which suffers from a chronic labour shortage. Many of the Guatemalan workers have been returning to the same farm for a decade or more.

The workers have been departing from their host farms quite suddenly.

Two workers at Fraisebec — a berry grower based in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Que — disappeared earlier this year, leaving only a note telling staff not to worry and not to look for them

Isabelle Charbonneau, who helps run Fraisebec, said at least three other Guatemalan workers at the farm won't be able to return next year because of the "four-in and four-out" rule.

"These are workers who we've had for six to seven years," Charbonneau said in an interview. "We have to start all over because of a federal law."

Hamel said it's difficult to track the workers who leave the program.

"Honestly we don't really know where they are," he said. "We suspect that they go into manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, but honestly we don't have a clue."

There are roughly 4,000 seasonal Guatemalan workers in Quebec and close to 6,000 in Canada.

The workers receive at least minimum wage in Quebec and, while the work can be gruelling in the summer heat, it far exceeds the $5 per day the workers would likely get back home, Hamel said.

"They are occupying jobs that Canadians generally don't want," he said. "They provide a very good workforce on our farms."

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, led by Minister John McCallum, wouldn't speculate on future policy changes to the temporary foreign workers program. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Changes coming soon?

Hamel and Charbonneau are both hopeful reforms are coming soon to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. 

A House of Commons committee, composed mostly of Liberals, submitted a report to the Liberal government last month that recommended, among other things, doing away with the four-year work-permit limits.   

A spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal department that oversees the program, said he "can't speculate on future policy changes."

The government must respond to the committee's recommendations within 120 days.

with files from Brennan Neill and Daybreak