Temporary foreign workers at Quebec greenhouse denounce cramped and unsanitary living conditions

Current and former employees of Serres Demers showed Radio-Canada journalists where they live: on bunk beds crammed into small spaces filled with mold, with holes in the wall, suffocating heat in the summer months, and a lack of hot water in the winter.

Radio-Canada report finds mould, close quarters, lack of hot water in lodgings for workers at Serres Demers

Some people put curtains or sheets over their bunks for more privacy. (Natacha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

When Juan came to Quebec from Guatemala to produce tomatoes for Productions Horticoles Demers, he hoped to make enough money to send home so his wife and children could put food on the table and afford a better education. 

But the living conditions provided by the renowned Quebec company, one of the largest agricultural producers in the province, are not what Juan imagined. 

Current and former employees of Serres Demers showed Radio-Canada journalists where they live: on bunk beds crammed into small spaces filled with mould, with holes in the wall, suffocating heat in the summer months, and a lack of hot water in the winter.

"We have little space, it's very uncomfortable," said Juan, who still works for Serres Demers.

Juan's name has been changed to protect his identity, because he is afraid of losing his job. 

When Radio-Canada journalists visited the site, they found mould. (Natacha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

He is one of the 70 to 95 workers from Guatemala who are needed year-round to produce tomatoes in Demers' 10 hectares of greenhouses. 

They pay $30 a week to live in three houses and an old motel about 10 kilometres from downtown Drummondville. 

"There is a lot of humidity [...] the smell is unpleasant," Juan said. "It's not a good place to live."

The ceiling in one of the houses leaks and the wood is deteriorating in places. (Natacha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

Former employees also told Radio-Canada they have to wake up at 4 a.m. if they have any hope of a warm shower before starting work, but most of them still have to wash under freezing water.

In the summer, they said, the problem is the unbearable heat in their rooms. 

"We feel like we're in prison," Juan said. "We live on top of each other."

Darian Xaper, a 35-year-old father of five, left his job at Productions Horticoles Demers after three years because he says he couldn't take it anymore. 

"In winter, we couldn't open the windows, everything was sealed," Xaper said. "There was a lot of mould. The insulation was very bad. It's not a normal life."

Surprised and saddened: company president

Company president and director Jacques Demers said he was surprised to learn his workers were dissatisfied with their living arrangements. 

"We are saddened by what we have learned," he said. "It does not correspond at all, at all, with our corporate values at Demers."

Demers declined Radio-Canada's interview requests in April, but said Monday that improvements have been made to the living arrangements, including cleaning and painting the bathrooms.

The company president also said Productions Horticoles Demers has a responsibility to follow health and safety norms set out by the federal government when it comes to temporary foreign workers, and that he doesn't think what's being reported reflects the reality. 

Demers said there is a 95 per cent retention rate for temporary foreign workers in his greenhouses, and he doubts so many people would be willing to return if they were unhappy. 

"We are going to fix things, and you will see changes very soon," he said.

Yannick Rivest is a human resources advisor at Productions horticoles Demers. (Natasha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

Yannick Rivest, with the company's human resources, said he was surprised to hear the complaints about living conditions, which he maintains he'd never heard before. 

"The idea is that they are happy, but this is not a world of Care Bears, they are agricultural workers," he told Radio-Canada. 

Rivest said the miscommunication between workers and the company could also be because of cultural differences, and a tendency by Guatemalans to be discreet. 

"We have to remind them regularly: 'you have legal representation, your work is guaranteed, you are unionized, you have permanence'," he said. 

Rivest categorically refutes that workers have broken their contracts and left their jobs because of the living conditions. He said anyone who decided to leave did so because of family issues. 

Monica Pena Florez is a former employee at Productions horticoles Demers. (Natasha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

Former human resources assistant Monica Pena Florez, who worked for Serres Demers from August 2019 to September 2020 before being let go, said employees are a long way from feeling valued. 

She said she was essentially the only person who spoke Spanish, and therefore the only one who could communicate with the 90 temporary foreign workers who were on staff at that time.

"No Quebec worker would want to work in these conditions," she said. 

Guatemalan temporary foreign workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (TUAC), and many current and former employees for Serres Demers told Radio-Canada they do not feel heard by their union representatives.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she's "horrified," and that Quebec producers should be an example of proper treatment for temporary foreign workers, who should all be treated with respect and dignity.

Bibeau also said any follow-up is up to federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Natacha Lavigne and Philippe Grenier