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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

HoustonChronicle.com - Canada searches south of Mexican border for more workers

HoustonChronicle.com - Canada searches south of Mexican border for more workers

June 15, 2004, 12:34AM

Canada searches south of Mexican border for more workers
By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
Associated Press

SALTILLO, Mexico -- While the United States struggles to strike a balance between labor shortages and the illegal entrance of thousands of Mexican migrants, Canada is sending recruiters into the mountains and cities of Mexico in search of workers.

More than 10,000 Mexicans work in Canada each year, mainly in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba.

The program was started to help fill worker shortages in agriculture but has been so successful that Canadian officials are expanding it to urban, unemployed Mexicans.

"This is a win-win situation," said Julian Anzaldua, of the Mexican Coahuila state employment service, which contracts guest workers. "Unfortunately, we don't have employment opportunities for many of our workers here, and in Canada they work with all the protections any Canadian worker would have."

To qualify, Mexican workers must be offered a job by a Canadian employer who can't find employees locally. The employer pays for transportation costs between Mexico City and Canada, and about a third of the costs are later deducted from the employee's wages.

Contracted migrants can work from six weeks to eight months, are guaranteed minimum wage, a 40-hour week and free housing, Anzaldua said.

The program is similar to a proposal President Bush has made in the United States. Under his plan, which must be approved by Congress, Mexican workers with U.S. job offers could receive temporary visas if they can prove no Americans want the jobs.

The U.S. Department of Labor already has a program that allows about 45,000 Mexicans to work legally in agriculture jobs every year, but critics say the immigration process is too cumbersome and expensive. Employers also say the number of workers allowed is not enough.

The U.S. government says an estimated 52 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented, but farm labor and industry groups estimate that number is closer to 85 percent.

Critics of the Canadian program say foreign agricultural workers are denied basic rights, including overtime wages and claiming health and unemployment benefits they pay for. Michael Forman, a spokesman with Canada's United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said workers are not aware of their rights and many times are afraid to file complaints against their employers.

Dave Greenhill, senior policy adviser for Canada's Human Resources and Skill Development Department, denied the rights of workers are violated and said there is a great deal of oversight by Mexican and Canadian authorities built into the program to ensure that Mexican workers benefit from it.

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