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'I see my children as strangers': The painful choice of Canada's temporary foreign workers




CBC News

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CBC News

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Gabriel Allahdua life's fell apart in 2010.

The economy had been struggling in his home country of Saint Lucia. At the time, Allahdua was buying and selling produce for a living.

Around him, tourism on the Caribbean island had dropped off since the global financial crisis, and a World Trade Organization ruling had removed preferential access of the country's banana exports to Europe.

Then a hurricane ripped across the island, destroying the livelihoods of farmers in the countryside.

Allahdua was suddenly out of work with two children to support, their mother having passed away several years earlier.

"When your life is difficult, you have to be creative," he says. "And being creative means exploring all possible options."

Justice for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group that Allahdua works with
So when the government's labour department said that he had an opportunity to move to Canada to become a farmer, Allahdua says he was elated.

"But the sad truth is, the moment I landed in Canada, I realized that my expectation and reality on the ground, there is a big gap between them," he says.

Life as a migrant worker

Allahdua says he took a four-hour ride in an unheated bus from the airport after landing in Canada. It was winter, and he wasn't properly dressed.

He was brought to Leamington, Ont., known for its greenhouse tomato farming. He picked and packaged fruit for a living, working as long as the daylight would allow.

The moment I landed in Canada, I realized that [between] my expectation and reality on the ground, there is a big gap,
- Gabriel Allahdua
He remembers living in a bunkhouse with 62 others — including eight in his room alone. He says they had three stoves, one television for the whole house, and no internet access.

"On top of [the Canada Pension Plan] and [employment insurance], we have deductions for uniform, for housing and all kind of deductions," he says. "Basically, we were working below minimum wage."

Allahdua was in Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which allows Canadian companies to hire temporary foreign workers from Mexico or the Caribbean for eight months at a time.

After working for an eight-month stretch, Allahdua would return home, where finding work was difficult. So the following winter, it was back to Canada for another eight months.

He says he felt it was impossible to speak up about the difficult working conditions, out of fear that he wouldn't be welcomed back to work.

And the alienation from his family and country was taking a toll.

Alienation from both homes

"The reality about the program is it makes me feel like a stranger in Canada and in my home country," he said about his four years in the program. He never felt able to integrate in Canada because of the long hours. "But when I return to my home country, I see my children as strangers."

Allahdua's children have moved into separate homes with relatives. He's supporting them with his earnings. But he says his children have struggled in school. He feels he could have better supported them by being present.

"What is the point in life if not to spend time with the people you love?" he asked.

Allahdua now advocates for migrant workers' rights in Canada.

"I see Canada as a place where decent working conditions can exist. But the sad truth is, it does not exist for migrant farm workers," he says.

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Estrangement".


Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers

Content types

Policy analysis and Documented cases of abuse

Target groups

(Im)migrants workers and Policymakers

Geographical focuses

Ontario, Quebec, Other Caribbean States, and National relevance

Spheres of activity