Canada Provides Housing For Migrant Laborers; In US Most Workers Must Find Their Own

Workers, researchers, activists and business owners discuss migrant worker treatment and housing in the United States and Canada.
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Workers, researchers, activists and business owners discuss migrant worker treatment and housing in the United States and Canada. Photos and Audio by Peter Haden, Perla Farias and Rachel Leingang.

By Rachel Leingang
Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

VIRGIL, Canada — When Severiano Gallegos arrived in rural Ontario from Mexico to pick grapes, he knew where he was going to live for the next eight months: in a bunkhouse on the farm with his own bed and closet, in good company with other guest workers. Housing was part of his contract.

Jorge Juarez was on his own when he decided to move to the California’s Coachella Valley from Mexicali, Mexico.  A week before he was to start working in the strawberry fields, he rented a trailer where he and his family would live for 13 years in a park with 300 other trailers, all occupied by farm workers and their families.

The dichotomy underscores a key difference in the way the two countries currently deal with seasonal influxes of agricultural workers.

Canada, which relies mainly on a regulated guest worker program, includes housing as part of its recruiting. In the United States, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that up to 70 percent of farm laborers are in the country illegally. Most of those workers must find housing on their own.

That could change with legislation pending in Congress. The comprehensive immigration package passed by the U.S. Senate in June, 2013, would establish a new guest worker program that would allow recruitment of tens of thousands of seasonal farm workers to the United States each year and a faster path to legal residency for current undocumented farm workers. The bill also includes provisions for housing for guest workers, a deal struck after negotiations between grower organizations and worker advocacy groups.

But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives – balking at providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- has not considered the Senate’s comprehensive bill.  GOP House leaders say they’ll opt instead for a piecemeal approach to immigration, leaving all provisions passed by the Senate – including the housing provision -- stalled.

Migrant workers tend strawberry fields in Indio, Calif. In contrast to most migrant worker operations in Canada, there are no worker 'barracks' or official housing complexes near these remote fields.  In the U.S. most migrant workers must find their own housing. Photo by Perla Farias
Migrant workers tend strawberry fields in Indio, Calif. In contrast to most migrant worker operations in Canada, there are no worker "barracks" or official housing complexes near these remote fields. In the United States, most migrant workers must find their own housing. Photo by Perla Farias.

The lack of decent housing was a key factor in the demise of the Bracero program, the largest agricultural guest worker program in U.S. history, which ran from 1942-1964 and imported almost 500,000 workers a year at its peak.

The current guest worker program in the U.S., the H2-A program, is underutilized, in part because growers find regulations burdensome, including required housing. Growers say there is no need for such bureaucracy when so many undocumented workers are available.

Canada avoided many of those arguments when it created its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in 1966, just two years after the United States ended the Bracero program. More than five decades later, the program has been hailed as a model by the United Nations, which praised its employer involvement and worker protections. Union officials, advocacy groups and researchers in Canada, however, dispute the “model” claim and say worker protections don’t go far enough in keeping temporary workers healthy and happy while they’re in Canada.

Making it work; taking the time

For Francisco Rodriguez, who has been working under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program in rural Virgil, Ontario, for over a decade, the housing requirement gives him a safe, comfortable place to stay — and a little more.

“Here we see each other as family,” Rodriguez said. “Imagine leaving your family behind for eight months to come to a country which is very different in its culture, in everything – that’s when one says, ‘Do I talk to myself or what do I do?’ So that’s when friendship is important.”

Rodriguez shares a room with one other guest worker and said he wouldn’t want it any other way. Sharing a room means you always have someone to talk to. Sharing a kitchen and dining room means you always have someone to cook and eat with. And if something goes wrong, Rodriguez said he tells the boss who will take care of it.

Rodriguez and his coworkers all pay for part of the gas and electricity, as well as a general program fee of about $60 per month. He shares the bunkhouse with 17 other workers. There are three showers and two washers and dryers for doing laundry.

The SAWP program began in 1966 as an agreement between Canada and Jamaica to bring temporary workers into the country. Over the years, it has expanded to Mexico and other Caribbean countries through agreements between the countries and Canada. Workers come on temporary visas that require an employer to provide housing, healthcare and part of the workers’ airline ticket costs. In 2012, the SAWP brought almost 30,000 workers into Canada, the bulk of whom (more than 18,000) went to Ontario.

In Ontario, the housing requirements are the strictest in the country. They spell out minimum temperatures, number of washing machines, dimensions for personal space and even requirements for bedding (“a supply of clean blankets, sheets and pillowcases”) and guidelines for how to clean dirty dishes (“sanitized by an acceptable method, dried by exposure to air”).

“Human nature, being what it is, if people have rules they try to follow them,” said Ken Forth, the president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services Ontario, which oversees the guest worker program in Ontario. “If they don’t have rules, well, maybe things will fall by the wayside... If you have rules, by gosh, at least you have a base.”

Ontario’s rules “are possibly a bit more rigid than the national guidelines,” said Henry Neufeld, manager of agriculture programs and services in the Ontario region for Service Canada.

But he said the rules are more than just a line on a piece of paper or a way to appease critics of the program; they’re an integral piece of keeping the program alive and healthy.

“We take housing very seriously, as does the industry,” Neufeld said. “We do not compromise on the fact that a temporary foreign worker will not be housed in any accommodations that have not been approved.”

What brought down the Bracero program

That wasn’t case in the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican workers into the United States from 1942 to 1964, initially as a response to the shortage of U.S. workers caused by World War II. The program received heavy criticism from church groups and worker advocates, and the workers’ plight was highlighted in CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame.”

“There are differing views on the pitfalls of the Bracero program,” said Kristi Boswell, director of Congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “But, ultimately, it’s a much different era now than it was in the forties when the Bracero program was unveiled…The approach now recognizes the needs of labor protections.”

Matt Garcia, director of the Comparative Border Studies Program at Arizona State University, worries that lessons from the past won’t be heeded.

“Everything I’ve seen in immigration reform and the advocacy for guest worker programs is just forgetting, just ignoring, the problems that existed in earlier programs,” Garcia said. “And they get worse as they go along, and the amnesia seems to become deeper and deeper each time we articulate a solution to the immigration problem.”

Genie Zavaleta and her husband Hector traveled around the country during the Bracero days (and after) with Migrant Ministry to talk with farm workers and advocate on their behalf. They saw housing across the spectrum of acceptability — some places were fine, nothing to complain about; others were dilapidated, outside the bounds of what they would deem habitable.

“There were minimal standards,” Genie Zavaleta said. “At least they had clean places to sleep, they had access to showers — those were in the contract, but they weren’t always enforced. Enforcement was the key.”

Erik Nicholson, director of the Guest Worker Membership Program for the United Farm Workers, said having rules isn’t the same as enforcing them. “The laws on the books are not the laws in the fields,” Nicholson said. “In the areas we do have’s more acute when it comes to guest workers. You’re dependent on someone else to enforce the law. That is the Achilles heel that undermines so much of what we have on the books.”

Canada’s differing views

In Canada, Janet McLaughlin, a professor at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario who has extensively studied the country’s guest worker program, said its rules don’t go far enough.

Eddie Lix, a guest worker from Guatemala stands in front of agricultural worker housing on a farm site in Ontario, Canada. Worker housing is a requirement under Canada's guest worker program. Photo by Perla Farias
Eddie Lix, a guest worker from Guatemala stands in front of agricultural worker housing on a farm site in Ontario, Canada. Worker housing is a requirement under Canada's guest worker program. Photo by Perla Farias.

“It doesn’t take much to follow the rules when the rules are so basic,” McLaughlin said. “And when employers do violate the rules that are in place, workers typically won’t complain about that.”

Critics also note guest worker housing is only required to be inspected once a year, before workers actually arrive.

“There are no repeat inspections that happen throughout the season to ensure that this minimum standard is met,” McLaughlin said. “And workers themselves never make complaints to the housing authorities because their employer is their landlord and they don’t want to upset their employer. They also might not even be aware of their rights or have the time to call the authorities or they might not have the language skills.”

Peter Jekel and his team understand the sentiment. Jekel is the manager of environmental health for Niagara Region Public Health and runs a team of five inspectors who certify guest worker housing. That team of five is responsible for inspecting over 400 bunkhouses yearly, in addition to other structures like nursing homes and hospitals.

“We don’t have the resources to do spot inspections,” Jekel said. “We would love to do spot inspections. It just adds a bit more of a surprise element that we could drop in at any time. Because we do all kinds of other premises, we’re really hard pressed to even get the routine stuff done, so all the other stuff is just extra.”

If Niagara Region gets a housing complaint from a worker or even a member of the community, they’re obligated to go out to inspect the house again, Jekel said. But he said he never gets complaints.

“Things may deteriorate in the housing and we would never be made aware of it,” Jekel said. “Those things could happen, but unless we’re told about it, we wouldn’t necessarily see that. If I were to say there was a gap, it’s perhaps the fact that we haven’t empowered the workers to be able to make the complaints.”

But Forth, who works with Canadian farmers, doesn't think the workers are afraid to speak out, and he doesn't think the abuses are nearly as extensive as researchers or unions claim.

“Are there a few instances like that?” Forth said. “Maybe. But when they make those accusations, we say, ‘Where’s the farm? Where are the workers? Which country are they from?’ They say, ‘We don’t really know.’ Okay, if they don’t know, then the accusation wasn’t true in the first place.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, the union representing guest workers, has been “ringing the alarm bells” for decades, according to Stan Raper, one of UFCW’s coordinators.

“There’s still some bad spots and there are some places I wouldn’t put my dog,” Raper said, “but they’re recognizing that housing is an issue and that we’ve been prepared to phone the fire department or someone from the city to go in – then we’ve called the media in, and so we’ve embarrassed enough of them, so that they’re finally getting the hint that they need to clean up their act a little bit.”

Raper said the union still sees overcrowding or deteriorating conditions in some guest worker housing, despite the growing recognition of the issue from employers.

Relying on the employers to self-police isn’t enough insurance for workers’ health and safety, McLaughlin said.

“If you leave it to the goodwill of the employer, some employers will be responsible and others won’t,” McLaughlin said. “It might be because they don’t feel like they have the money to invest in housing, or it might be because they don’t feel like these workers need good housing. Whatever their motivation, if they don’t provide healthy, adequate housing then the health of workers will suffer.”

But no matter how bare the guidelines may be, McLaughlin acknowledged that they do at least provide a framework.

“There needs to be good standards and regulations in place — and in that respect, the Canadian program at least provides that minimum standard,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think it goes far enough, but it’s better than no standard. I’m sure if there were no standard, it would be even worse.”

Coachella Valley: On your own, living in cars

Javier Lopez moved to California’s Coachella Valley from the Mexican state of Coahuila for one simple reason: to make more money. His father came to the area before him and rented a trailer, so he had a place to sleep at night while he figured out how to navigate the Valley’s housing.

Now, Lopez rents a house from a local church that he shares with another farm worker. He doesn’t think he’d be able to pay for the house on his own, and only found the house through other Mexican workers from Coahuila who go to his church.

“But alone, by yourself,” Lopez said, “I don’t think you can pay for a house because it’s about $1,000 [per month] for rent. You would live with a lot of limitations.”

Lopez lives in the Coachella Valley permanently but every May a transient group of workers comes into the area to help out during the peak season. Those migrant farm workers face a challenge finding a temporary place to stay that’s affordable, according to Carlos Cueva, Project Manager for the Community and Economic Development Department at the Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment.

When the migrant workers arrive, they usually group together in the Mecca area of the Coachella Valley — “a lot of them are just living on the streets or in whatever structure they can find,” Cueva said.

Groups like DACE have been working for years to provide temporary housing for this population. DACE has one project with 48 beds for migrant workers and is breaking ground on another this year.

“A lot of individuals are car-camping and what have you,” Cueva said. “We’re trying to get them into an air-conditioned space so that they have a place to get away from the heat. We also have a temporary shower that we operate right there about a mile away from the city. It allows people to come in and take a shower and do some laundry.”

But there’s also a need for affordable housing for those who work in the Coachella Valley year-round, exacerbating the problem when seasonal workers arrive.

“There’s always going to be a need for affordable housing,” Cueva said.

The compromise proposal in Congress

The compromise immigration bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” contains provisions similar to those in Canada’s program, the result of negotiations between the Farm Bureau, other grower groups and the United Farm Workers union.

The housing guidelines in the Gang of Eight plan calls for housing provided by the employer or an adequate housing allowance for apartments or houses in the local area.

Boswell said the Farm Bureau focused on finding a compromise that would work for agriculture. The housing provisions account for a big part of that compromise.

“There are concerns on both sides of the aisle about these workers coming in to a foreign country and where they’re going to be housed and making sure they have appropriate housing,” Boswell said. “And so the compromise was that housing would be required, but an employer could also provide a housing allowance in lieu of actual housing, which could be a bit more successful and easy to use for an employer.”

In rural Ontario, guest workers probably wouldn’t be able to find an apartment landlords are willing to rent to them on a temporary basis, according to Forth.

“I don’t know where they’re going to find it, because nobody wants to rent a house or an apartment for six months,” Forth said. “I don’t know how they’d do it. It would be a big hassle, and it would cost them a lot.”

Hector Zavaleta, the Migrant Ministry worker during the Bracero era, believes that enforcement of regulations is the key to making housing requirements work this time around.

“That is one of the areas that the government needs to make sure that there is an agency there that makes sure there are certain standards,” Zavaleta said. “Probably in some communities, they will rent out the shack behind the house where they used to keep their tools or their pigs or whatever for $40 or $50 a week. That’s what’s going to happen if we don’t set any standards.”

Best practices considered in U.S.

The UFW estimates that the United States has over two million farm workers spread across the country. While the Senate’s bill capped the number of guest workers who can be hired at 112,000 a year, it also allowed for quicker legal residency for agricultural workers already in the country provided they continue to work in agriculture. “In the long run, we see our entire workforce coming from this program,” said Boswell.

As the House drafts its own immigration bills instead of considering the comprehensive Senate plan, the UFW and other organizations with a stake in immigration reform are trying to stay involved in the process.

"We want to remind the House of Representatives that we are in this together," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said in a press release. "We are urging them to not delay any longer and either take up the Senate bill or draft its own comprehensive immigration reform bill, but doing nothing is not an option."

With such a large program, enforcement of housing standards could once again become a topic of contention. In Canada having employer-provided housing requirements gives Forth some piece of mind.


“Without them, the worker then has the right to live wherever he wants,” Forth said. “Where’s that going to be? Could be in a tent, could be in a bus, could be anywhere.”

McLaughlin said Canada’s program has some elements that are worth replicating in the U.S. plan. Still, she calls Canada’s program a best practices program for employers, not employees.

“Since you have this golden opportunity to devise your own system at this point and time,” McLaughlin said, “here’s a chance for the United States to actually make a best practices program.”

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