Latin America
4:22 pm
Thu January 31, 2013

The Mexico-Canada Guest-Worker Program: A Model For The U.S.?

Originally published on Fri February 1, 2013 11:29 am

In the U.S., farmers and farm workers alike say the current system to import temporary workers, especially in agriculture, is slow and fraught with abuses.

But the shape of a new guest-worker program is still being hashed out. Some say the U.S. should import temporary workers the same way Canada does. For nearly four decades, the governments of Canada and Mexico have cooperated to fill agriculture jobs that Canadian citizens won't do, and that Mexicans are clamoring to get.

On a recent day, the line outside the state labor office in downtown Puebla, Mexico, is long. About 15 men, many of whom have traveled several hours from rural towns to get here, listen for their names to be called.

Juan Carlos Corona is called into the office. A state worker enters his name and file number into the computer. She prints out his latest application, staples photos of Corona to his file, and tells him to come back in two months for a medical exam.

If everything checks out, Corona will get his visa, a plane ticket to Canada and six months of full-time work. This would be the third year he's worked legally in Canada's broccoli fields. Before that, he says he would sneak into the U.S. to find work.

"It was really tough. We would have to hike over mountains, cross at night in the cold. It would take 10 days and cost thousands of dollars," Corona says. "This way I take a comfortable plane ride, and I'm there in four hours. I really like this program."

In Canada, Corona works 14 hours a day, six days a week. His daily pay is about $120.

At home, he says, he makes 120 pesos a day — or about $10.

A Long-Term Program

Mexico has sent workers to Canada for nearly four decades. Bianca Garcia, who administers the program for the state of Puebla, says it's a win-win for both countries.

She says Mexican workers are poor, with few job prospects at home. And in Canada, farmers need workers. Mexico sends about 17,000 workers a year to Canada. Garcia says every year she turns away applicants.

Those who do get a chance to go almost always come back home. The Mexican government closely screens applicants — mostly men between the ages of 22 and 40, with small children at home.

Farmers have advocated for such a guest-worker program for years in the U.S.

Manuel Cunha, who heads a growers group in California, says the current U.S. guest-worker program, known as H2-A, doesn't work — it's too bureaucratic and too costly, and farmers can't get workers fast enough.

"That's why the H2-A program, over the past 30 years, 40 years, has not been a solution for agriculture when we run a shortage of labor," Cunha says.

He says many aspects of the Canadian program could be a model for U.S. lawmakers now crafting a new guest-worker program.

Farmworker advocates aren't as convinced. Erik Nicholson, a vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, says that in Canada, Mexican guest workers are tied to one employer. If the worker complains, the employer just sends him back home.

"We want workers that are able to work wherever they can get the best return on their day's labor, that they are recruited fairly and will not be put into debt peonage and [have] to pay thousands of dollars — that they have the required skills and training to produce a quality product in a safe and just way," Nicholson says.

At the Puebla state employment office, Marcelo Ramirez Garcia says he's anxious to get all his paperwork done and return to Canada. This will be his 23rd trip. He is 60 years old.

He says it's hard to leave his family for such long stretches of time, but he's glad he's been able to give them a better life in Mexico — something he couldn't have done without the work in Canada.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The immigration plans proposed by both President Obama and a group of senators call for a new and improved guest worker program. Currently, the system the U.S. uses, especially for agriculture, is slow and fraught with abuse. But the shape of a new guest worker program is still being hashed out. Some say the U.S. should import temporary workers the same way that Canada does.

For more than three decades, the governments of Canada and Mexico have cooperated to fill agriculture jobs that Canadian citizens won't do and Mexicans are clamoring to get.

From Mexico, NPR's Carrie Kahn tells us more.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The line outside the state labor office in downtown Puebla, Mexico, is long. About 15 men, many of whom have traveled several hours from rural towns to get here, listen for their names to be called. Juan Carlos Corona is next.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN CARLOS CORONA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: A state worker enters his name and file number into the computer. She prints out his latest application, staples photos of Corona to his file and tells him to come back in two months for a medical exam.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CORONA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: If everything checks out, Corona will get his visa, a plane ticket to Canada and six months of full-time work. This is the third year he's worked legally in Canada's broccoli fields. Before that, he says, he would sneak into the U.S. to find work.

CORONA: (Through Translator) It was really tough. We would have to hike over mountains, cross at night in the cold. It would take 10 days and cost thousands of dollars. This way, I take a comfortable plane ride and I'm there in four hours. I really like this program.

KAHN: In Canada, Corona works 14 hours a day, six days a week. His daily pay: about $120.

CORONA: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: At home, he says, he makes 120 pesos a day, about $10.

Mexico has been sending workers to Canada for nearly four decades. Bianca Garcia administers the program for the state of Puebla. She says it's a win-win for both countries.

BIANCA GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She says Mexican workers are poor, with little job prospects in their hometowns. And in Canada, farmers need workers. Mexico sends about 17,000 workers a year north. Garcia says every year she turns away applicants.

And those who do get a chance to go almost always come back home. The Mexican government closely screens applicants, mostly men between the ages 22 and 40, with small children at home.

Farmers have been advocating for such a guest worker program for years in the U.S. Manuel Cunha, who heads a growers group in California, says the current U.S. guest worker program, known as H2-A, doesn't work. He says it's too bureaucratic, costly, and farmers can't get workers fast enough.

MANUEL CUNHA: That's why the H2-A program over the past 30 years, 40 years has not been a solution for agriculture when we run a shortage of labor.

KAHN: He says many aspects of the Canadian program could be a model for U.S. lawmakers as they craft a new guest worker program.

Farm worker advocates aren't as convinced. The United Farm Workers' vice president, Erik Nicholson, says in Canada, Mexican guest workers are tied to one employer. If the worker complains, the employer just sends him back home.

ERIK NICHOLSON: We want workers that are able to work wherever they can get the best return on their day's labor, that they are recruited fairly and will not be put into debt peonage and having to pay thousands of dollars, that they have the required skills and training to produce quality product in a safe and just way.

KAHN: At the Puebla state employment office, Marcelo Ramirez Garcia says he's anxious to get all his paperwork done and go back to Canada. This will be his 23rd trip. He's 60 years old.

MARCELO RAMIREZ GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says, of course, it's hard to leave his family for such long stretches of time. But he's glad he's been able to give them a better life in Mexico, something he couldn't have done without the work in Canada.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.