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Part 1: Canadian migrant worker program

It may be difficult to imagine what California's fruit and vegetable growers have in common with a small prairie town in Canada. Both are competing for migrant labor. This spring, about 12,000 men from Mexico will be hired to fill job shortages on Canadian farms. Today, eighteen of those men are arrive in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Where the American and Canadian communities differ, is how the migrant workers will be treated once they arrive. In this first of a two part series on temporary worker programs in the two countries, Joanne Faryon begins with one migrant's story in California.

We're in a canyon, somewhere between San Diego's wealthiest neighborhoods and middle class suburbs, an area where migrant workers from Mexico have lived and worked for decades. Migrants call it Rancho Del Diablos devils ranch. The devils are the employers or farmers.

Forty-five-year-old Juan lives here. His home is a piece of plywood to sleep on, a tent-like roof over-head, made from a green plastic tarp. He has no running water or toilet, but he's managed to piece together a make shift shower stall consisting of large black trash bags. He's lived this way for three years.

Welland: "He works as a gardener in Santa Luz (a homeowner or company?) no, a company which hires him. You probably don't want to put his name out there because they probably don't know his papers aren't real.

Christauria Welland acts as interpreter. she is a San Diego psychologist who volunteers with her local church. She often hands out work boots, blankets and bibles to the men who live in the canyon.

Welland: "There's a lot of problems with rats. When I was giving out their bibles, there was this joke, don't let the rat have your Bibles, rats can't read, and the guys have a lot of problems with rats, they run up and down the roof and up and down their bodies.

Welland says Juan's neighbors have similar stories, living under plastic tarps, working at odd jobs, many planting and harvesting tomatoes that grow in surrounding fields.

More than 2,000 miles north east of here, there is a Canadian farming town made famous by its sweet and plentiful strawberry fields. Portage la Prairie is only about an hours drive north of the U.S. border, located on one of the coldest stretches of Canadian prairie. But come spring, the area transforms into a lush growing expanse.

It's where Doug Connery's family began farming four generations ago. Connery can't find enough Canadian workers to plant and harvest his 12,000 acres of green oinions, broccoli, and of course strawberries.

This spring he will hire 80 extra workers. They'll begin arriving today from some of Mexico's poorest villages.

Connery has already paid for their round-trip airfare. He'll pick them up at the airport and drive them to where they'll live, some of them in a brand new 1,800 square foot home.

Connery: We have to supply housing on the farm, it's inspected housing, it has to meet all building codes, fire codes, health codes. This housing is free of charge. We also have to supply utilities, bedding, cooking utensils, like a home

Connery's employees are hired under Canada's seasonal agricultural worker program. Most of the 20,000 workers hired under this program are from Mexico.

Since it was introduced in 1974, Connery has employed at least 500 men. He often flies to Mexico, where he recruits the men to work.

Juan Jose Martinez de LaRosa is with the Mexican Consulate and overseas the program from his Toronto office.

He says Canada's program works because its negotiated by both the Canadian and Mexican governments.

de La Rosa: "I think personally, this is a good example to work between two countries, to cooperate on the immigration issues, if both governments work together, to try and avoid problems.

Doug Connery's workers stay in Canada an average of 20 weeks, and after deductions will take home more than $4,000 U.S. dollars. In the thirty years Connery has participated in the program, only a handful of men have not returned to Mexico when their work permits expired.

A 2004 report published by the Center for Comparitive Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, surveyed hundreds of Mexican men who participated in the Canadian program. Just under half said their living conditions in Canada were better than they were accustomed to in Mexico.

Wayne Cornelius is director of the Immigration Studies Centre at UCSD.

He recently interviewed two men from Mexico who worked on Canadian farms.

Cornelius: "I was imoressed that even in this case worers from a very small town in the interior of the state of Yukatan had been recruited by representatives from the Canadian government program, they had been promised certain terms, those terms were honored during their sojourn in Canada, and it seemed to be very much a win win situation.

The CCIS study did point out complaints of mistreatment. Not all employers paid overtime rates, many employees were forced to use pesticides without proper protection. There have been several media reports in Canada about abuse within the program. Unions there have long argued workers are at the whim of their employers, for fear they may not be called back to the program.

Despite the criticism, the program is so successful, workers in Mexico continue to lineup to participate and farmers continue to recruit. Some men have worked long enough in Canada to now collect Canadian Pension Plan benefits in Mexico.

Christauria Welland sits on an old lawn chair parked in front of Juan's lean-to. Juan tells her he earns about $8,000 a year at his job with the landscape company. But despite his efforts, Juan still hasn't paid the debt he incurred to be smuggled into the country. The irony is that he came to America as an entrepreneur, hoping to make money and leave. Instead, he's become an illegal immigrant, squatting in a canyon, making so little money he has to stay.



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