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Fathers struggle with leaving families to come to work on B.C.'s farms

Long periods away from home are one of the main struggles for migrant workers in B.C., says expert.
Most of the Mexican workers hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have farms in Mex
A migrant worker harvests grapes at a farm in the Okanagan, B.C.

Daniel Medrano remembers when he would walk one kilometre after work to queue for a payphone to call his family 13 years ago, when he started in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

Medrano, like most SAWP workers, is away from his family for eight months of the year, something that has a profound effect on him and many others. He fears that his children, aged eight, 13 and 17, have lost respect for him, as he has been absent for many large events in their lives, such as birthdays and graduations.

There are 6,500 Mexican workers involved in the SAWP program this year, according to Berenice Veracruz, consular general of the Mexican consulate. 42,219 positions were issued to workers in the SAWP program in 2023 — 8,721 of them being in B.C., according to Employment and Social Development Canada. 11,831 temporary foreign workers were registered in agricultural industries in 2022, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

These long periods away from home are one of the main struggles for migrant workers, according to Byron Cruz, a longtime migrant rights activist and member of Sanctuary Health Vancouver.

"The kids are missing their dads, then the dads constantly tell us, ‘we are missing the best moments in life. The time when we need to be there to support,’” Cruz said.

Cruz claims many workers tell him it’s their last season, but “they keep coming because they need that economical support.”

Antonio Jimenez, who was in the SAWP program for 10 years, and is now in Canada on a two-year migrant worker permit, knew he had to make life-altering sacrifices for his children. However, he acknowledged that his long absences had a profound affect on his children, who are now 27, 23 and 15.

“We think it's hard for us, but for them it's I think it's even tougher because when they're kids, they don't know, ‘why does he have to go? Why can’t he stay here?’” Jimenez said.

Jimenez’ father was also abroad for extended periods of time, so he understands how his children feel.

“When I was a kid, he was always in the US, so that's why I'm very familiar with what a kid feels when his dad is not home. It was very difficult for my mom,” he said. “I didn't want my dad to go away and all that, but later I figured out that I had to do it too.”

There are other, more extreme challenges to being so far from family, according to Cruz.

“Many of the workers call us crying because their relative has been kidnapped and the kidnappers are asking for money from them,” he said. “And we are talking about thousands of dollars, even a situation where they asked for $1 million.”

According to Cruz, kidnappings frequently occur because some gangs assume temporary workers in Canada are well-off. He says his team at Sanctuary receives a call relating to kidnapping “at least” every two weeks.

“Sometimes it comes from criminality in the in the small towns and villages, where there is a lot of poverty. And then one or two workers are recruited from a small village,” he said. “And then there is the belief that these workers will make a lot of money when they come to Canada, but we know by fact that that's not true.”

Homesickness is still an obstacle for many workers, though having Wi-Fi installed in most farm accommodations has ameliorated SAWP workers’ experience, according to Glen Lucas, general manager at the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.

“When the program first started in 2004, it was hard on workers because it was telephone and telephone rates have come down, but it was a cost and it was difficult,” he said. “But nowadays with WhatsApp and with video conferencing, the workers are way happier. It's still not ideal being, you know, not with your family, but it's way better than it used to be.”

Santi, a Fraser Valley-based farmworker whose name has been changed because of employment concerns, has been involved in the SAWP program for eight years. He agrees that having Wi-Fi at his current farm has allowed him to be in more frequent contact with his family back home, and now he’s able to call home daily.

Rafael, whose name has also been changed, is used to working for his family. At the age of six, he said he worked from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. many days, transporting goods for his father’s farm. When he was 10, he moved from his small town in the province of Veracruz to work in Mexico City to work and send money to his parents.

“I’m not scared of work, because I’ve been doing it all my life,” he said.

The way the SAWP program operates means family issues and homesickness is inevitable, according to Robert Russo, a law professor at UBC who specializes in immigration and labour issues.

“The selection of the program is geared towards selecting men who have families back home so that there's no incentive for them to try to overstay in Canada,” he said.

The Mexican Consulate of Vancouver confirmed that only men with families can take part in the SAWP program.

Russo acknowledged that while there is a now a recent pilot program created by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for temporary agriculture workers to eventually qualify for permanent residency, the chances of being accepted for most SAWP workers are slim.

“The pathway that they [IRCC] created in the last couple of years, the pilot program, most of the workers, almost all of them, won't qualify under that,” he said. “They just don't have enough human capital or skill and they don't get credit under the program, so there's no realistic prospect of them bringing their families to Canada and settling here.”

Being away from family over 12 years has been challenging for Jimenez, who would like for his family to come settle in Canada, but is waiting on “complicated” paperwork.

“To be here without the family, and especially if you're here for eight months, you're like a Canadian and just going back to Mexico for vacation.”

SAWP workers should be able to look towards a permanent future in Canada, according to Penticton’s MP Richard Cannings, of the NDP.

“If we feel these people are good enough to do work Canadians don’t want to do... there should be a pathway for workers to become permanent residents if they want it,” said Cannings.

Moving his family from Guatemala would be “too expensive” for Tino, a worker whose name has been changed as well.

When Tino returns home for the four months each year, he spends most of his time working on his own fruit processing farm, while trying to spend as much time with his family as possible before he has to return.

Those months at home are often tough on workers, according to Jimenez.

“Even if the first or second day you're there [home], you're already thinking about coming back and afraid to come back, because once we get there, we already started doing some paperwork for coming back,” Jimenez said.

Occasionally, more seasoned workers are given the chance to return home during the season, according to Hillcrest Farm owner and president of the B.C. Cherries Association, Sukhpaul Bal.

“Depending season by season, if the season's been pretty stressful and they want to want a bit of a break, we've sent some of our main guys back to visit with their families to get reenergized and then they come back,” Bal said. “We make sure that we've got a good internet connection and people are, you know, doing the video chats with family on a regular basis.”

When tragedy strikes workers while they are away from home, Berenice Ceballos, Consul General of the Mexican Consulate, said some employers are more compassionate with their employees than others. She claims there are employers happy to allow workers to temporarily go home for an event such as a family funeral, while others aren’t willing to let employees go.

Medrano hopes his children will eventually understand why he’s made such large sacrifices. His main goal in the program has always been to save up enough money for them to get higher education, something he never had the opportunity to do.

The extensive periods of time workers spend in Canada are frequently rewarded with better futures for their children, according to Ceballos.

“You can imagine that means a very big sacrifice for the workers and for the family, they don't come here, but on the other hand... Many workers I have interviewed, they are very happy because coming here to Canada has given them the opportunity for their children to have a career, maybe university,” she said.

As someone who's lived away from his family for so long, Medrano doesn’t take anything for granted, as he’s seen the tolls that the program has taken on colleagues and their families over time.

“When you come here, you have to be conscious that maybe your family will not wait for you forever,” he said. “Life keeps going, and everybody is different.”

This story was produced with support from the Jeani Read-Michael Mercer Scholarship for Langara College.