Source: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

A report published by the CBC at the end of May brought to light the horrible living conditions which temporary foreign workers have to endure at the Productions Horticoles Demers greenhouses in Drummondville. The Guatemalan workers who produce the company’s tomatoes are crammed for the duration of their employment in poorly insulated and moldy housing. Far from being a phenomenon unique to Demers greenhouses, the problem of substandard housing is a scourge in the lives of temporary foreign workers. Not surprisingly, the bosses and their government openly exploit the particular vulnerability of these workers to line their pockets.

At the mercy of the bosses

Several tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers are hired each year by companies in Canada. These workers are exploited in key sectors such as health, elderly care and particularly the agricultural sector. About 60,000 of them are hired as seasonal agricultural workers each year.

Coming mainly from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, these workers are separated from their families to stay in Canada for periods of up to two years. 

These workers typically receive half the wages of a Canadian workers for more intensive work. They work hard during 18-hour workdays. Quebecois and Canadian bosses do not hesitate to take advantage of this cheap labor.

Once in Canada, their accommodation is chosen by the employers. Often, as in the case of Demers, workers are housed close to their workplace. Already separated from their families by borders, they are also isolated from the rest of the population. They complain about not being able to move freely outside the farms and must have permission from the bosses to receive visits at their places of residence. They are harassed and even have their passports confiscated.

These violations of their rights are rarely reported, not because they are rare, but rather because the language barrier provides an additional layer of isolation for temporary foreign workers. Portals to denounce these abuses in Canada are not accessible in languages other than French and English, and there is no interpretation service. This reality places temporary foreign workers in an extremely vulnerable situation.

To top it off, temporary foreign workers are admitted to Canada with a closed work permit. The closed permit binds these workers to a specific employer and they can stay in Canada only as long as the employer keeps them in their employ. The worker therefore risks losing their right to reside in Canada at any time, at the whim of the employer. So, for these workers, denouncing violations of their rights can trigger their accelerated return to their country of origin, which means the loss of an essential source of income to support their families. This is the perfect recipe for guaranteeing the violation of their rights at their workplace and living spaces. Temporary foreign workers are completely at the mercy of the bosses.

Overcrowded and substandard housing

The bosses, with politicians at their tail, including Legault, were quick to reassure or express their wish that the substandard housing where the workers of Demers are housed, as revealed by the CBC, is an isolated case. For his part, the CEO of the company, Jacques Demers, is feigning ignorance.

But it’s no secret that temporary foreign workers are inadequately housed in Quebec and Canada. In fact, more than 1,250 of the complaints received by the Mexican Ministry of Labour between 2009 and 2020 concern the housing conditions of temporary workers in Canada. In a survey by the Quebec Migrant Agricultural Workers Support Network (RATTMQ), one-third of the 675 respondents found that their housing was inadequate.

Workers report that the living quarters are infested with rats and bed bugs. They have to stand in line for hours to finally end up taking a cold shower. Up to 20 people sleep in the same dorm in bunk beds and must use a toilet that is outside or without doors. They really don’t have any privacy.

“We don’t have an indoor toilet. We have to use a portable toilet outside or pee in a bottle. No internet or television. No tumble dryer or washing machine. We live in conditions of modern slavery. We want decent houses, not stables. It’s worse than if we were in prison,” said one of the workers.

During the pandemic, bosses were quick to create conditions exacerbating already existing problems. For example, to find space to quarantine new workers, instead of paying for hotel rooms, Demers moved workers to a basement with no furniture other than a mattress placed directly on the floor and confined up to 14 of them in the same room for two weeks.

Complaints made to the Ministry of Labour in Mexico are passed on to Employment and Social Development Canada without action. Several organizations have been sending reports and recommendations to the governments of Quebec and Canada on the living conditions of temporary foreign workers for years, to no avail. The bosses and their governments are clearly unable to offer a solution to this crisis.

Ridiculous standards

Following the CBC’s revelations, Jacques Demers said the three houses and the old, run-down, poorly ventilated motel with mold-covered cupboards he crammed workers into all year round comply with the rules set out by Ottawa. We can probably give him the benefit of the doubt here, because the so-called standards set by the federal government are in fact virtually non-existent.

While the UN considers that housing with more than three people per room is overcrowded and that in Canada the standard is one room per adult, when it comes to temporary foreign workers, employers are allowed to house them in lodgings with seven square meters per worker. Worse yet, this area is calculated based on the area of the entire dwelling and not just the dormitories. Six workers per oven and fridge and 10 per toilet and shower is reasonable according to these humiliating standards.

Dormitories and bunk beds are prohibited for local workers, but for foreigners they are allowed, even during the pandemic. The Canadian government simply sets a minimum of 45 centimetres between beds. The various space and equipment minimums established are far below national and international standards. Despite this, the bosses don’t care in their quest for profit.

“The idea is that they should be happy, but this is not a world of Care Bears, they are agricultural workers,” Yannick Rivest, Jacques Demers’ human resources advisor, said cynically. Indeed, the life of temporary foreign workers in Canada is not a world of Care Bears, but rather a real hell.

Similar horrible conditions are imposed on local workers as well, who are made to sleep in storage spaces or in laundry rooms. The greed of the capitalists has no limits. They do not care about the residency status of those they exploit, least of all when it comes to workers in precarious situations.

The capitalists and the state: hand in hand

Considering that in Quebec, an organization of the bosses, the Foundation for Foreign Agricultural Worker Recruitment (FERME), conducts most of the inspections, it is not surprising that the scourge of substandard housing is so widespread in this sector. In fact, the companies are given a warning prior to inspections and are thus able to show only what they want to show.

The deplorable state of housing used by the Demers company has been denounced twice in the past year to the Committee on Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work (CNESST). The file was passed from hand to hand between the various offices and committees without any resolution.

Meanwhile, the company, already Quebec’s largest vegetable producer, is preparing to double its production with the gracious help of the CAQ government. Nearly half of the $70 million needed for this expansion project will come from government loans and grants.

The vulnerability of temporary foreign workers makes them the perfect prey of capital under the reckless if not approving eye of the state.

Anyone who works here has the right to live here!

The profit-seeking capitalists use the workers as mere machines from which the greatest possible profit is to be made. To this end, they exploit them inordinately. They lengthen the working day, lower wages and speed up the pace of work.

Quality dormitories and living spaces are expenses that cut directly into their profits. We should not expect the benevolence of the bosses or their state to put an end to this problem. In fact, the capitalists to whom Demers supplies vegetables have been quick to point out that they had no intention of removing Demers tomatoes from their shelves. When it comes to exploiting workers and lining their pockets, the bosses are easily united.

Workers must do the same. Workers, regardless of their origin or status in Canada, have the same interests. The exploitation of temporary foreign workers is really an attack on the entire working class. The use of “cheap labor” puts downward pressure on the wages of the rest of the workers and helps the bosses destroy good jobs. For example, in 2013, RBC caused a scandal when it used the temporary foreign worker program to replace 45 of its IT workers with underpaid Indian workers. To prevent this downward pressure, the labour movement must fight for them to have the same rights and working conditions as the rest of the workers.

Unions must demand that the temporary foreign worker program be abolished and that these workers be given permanent residency. Anyone who works here must have the right to live here! The unions have immense resources and membership that should be used to campaign against this regressive agenda. They should also use these resources to organize and defend these workers. In our fight against the bosses, we can only rely on our own forces.