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Border & Immigration

Can Canada Offer A Model To Fix Our Broken Guest Worker Program?

Among the topics the looming immigration debate will tackle is how to expand our guest worker program for seasonal agricultural workers. The Washington Post highlighted some of the shortfalls facing our current system.

The Problem

We currently give out 50,000 seasonal visas to agricultural workers. But industry experts cited in the Post story said the need is for around 2 million workers. This gap is at least partly filled by undocumented immigrants, who are employed by individuals side-stepping the guest worker program, because they say, it’s a bloated and inefficient.

How Do We Fix This?

Some experts are looking to Canada. The Canadian government set up a system with Mexico, “a government-to-government agreement that Mexican officials view as a potential model for an expanded 'guest worker' program in the United States.”

The Canadian Model

Last year, nearly 16,000 temporary Mexican workers came to Canada. The government-to-government program doesn’t involve recruiters, some who have been criticized for exploiting workers. The temporary workers themselves are vetted:

Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico.

Their movements are strictly controlled:

Once in Canada, the workers live like monks, sleeping in trailers or barracks, under contractual agreements that forbid them from drinking alcohol and having female visitors, or even socializing with other Mexican workers from different farms.

And there are procedures put in place to make sure they return home:

Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico.

Model Of The Future?

Labor activists and immigrant advocates in this country don’t like the Canadian system.

“People look to Canada as a model for their success at making temporary workers truly temporary,” said David FitzGerald, an immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego. “But the way they are prevented from staying is by socially isolating them to an extreme degree, controlling their movements and systematically preventing them from interacting with Canadian society,” he said.

But, the incentives in the program — full pay once home, recruiting young workers with families who stay in their home country — effectively promote workers returning home. This is something the Canadian and U.S. governments do like.

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