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Ottawa looks to Mexico to ease labour crunch Add to ...

Ten years ago, Luis Vasquez left his home in Veracruz, Mexico, where he earned the equivalent of $1.50 a day picking other people's crops, to go to the city of Cuernavaca, "thinking about a better future," he said.

That future never materialized. Married and the father of three daughters, Mr. Vasquez, 29, survives by doing odd jobs: harvesting sorghum, laying bricks, or working as a butcher in the local market. This summer, however, Mr. Vasquez will supplement his income in a new way, travelling to Saint-Rémi, Que., to pick vegetables under a program for agricultural workers.

And thousands more may join him, as Ottawa expands the program to other sectors of the economy, in a bid to address a deepening labour shortage.

The one-two punch of low fertility rates and retiring baby boomers will result in a labour shortage of nearly one million people by 2020, according to Conference Board of Canada predictions. Economic forecasting company Global Insight warns that this could cause annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth to shrink from the current 2.8 per cent to less than 2 per cent. Meanwhile, Mexico has far more workers than its economy can possibly accommodate.

"I wouldn't say it is the solution," said Charles Beach, an economist at Queen's University. "But it would help. There is a real shortage of blue-collar workers and the Canadian immigration point system does not accommodate them very well."

In Canada, the need for labour is regional and sectoral with resource-rich western provinces booming as central Canada's manufacturing economy falters. But demand is likely to be sustained for many years, Mr. Beach said. "Canada has been experiencing a huge increase in demand for resources, such as potash and particularly oil and gas. So Alberta and Saskatchewan are booming."

What's more, massive construction and infrastructure projects in Western Canada mean "there's really a lot of draw on that skilled labour work force," he added. "A lot of the labour market assessments suggest that 2008-10 is going to be quite a crunch period."

A Canada-Mexico working group on labour mobility was announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and his Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa, after the North American Leaders' Summit in Montebello, Que., last August. As the visiting workers program is expanded, the group will deal with developing a certification process that provides Canadian employers with the assurance that a bricklayer or welder will meet their specifications, as well as defining the length of temporary stays.

Currently, more than 100 National Employment Service offices throughout Mexico recruit workers and maintain a data bank, vetting applicants for appropriate work experience. They then match their data with requests from employers across Canada, funnelled through the Human Resources and Social Development ministry. The number of potential job placements in Canada can be as high as 800,000, said Jorge Rodriguez, Chief of International Affairs at Mexico's Labour Secretariat.

In the United States, the inflow of undocumented Mexican workers has been a boon to its economy for, among other reasons, its temporary and informal aspects. Manhattan Institute economist Tamar Jacoby puts the financial figure at $154-billion (U.S.) annually and has also pointed out its "just-in-time" character. Millions of Mexican workers run a kind of employment exchange, alerting friends and relatives back home about job opportunities.

Last year, more than 14,000 Mexicans went to Canada to work in its fields, greenhouses and cattle ranches. About 80 per cent are returning workers, Mr. Rodriguez said. "These farmers had a good experience with their Mexican employees, and in turn, the workers received good treatment and pay," he said.

The workers also operate their own casual referral network: When employers express a need for more workers in the upcoming season, many workers recommend relatives and friends back in Mexico for the jobs.

That is how Mr. Vasquez got his opportunity. His younger brother, Alejandro, has already put in three summers in Quebec. Making do with a room in his father-in-law's modest cinderblock house on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mr. Vasquez's dream, he said, "is to buy land and build a house, for me and my family. That's the most important thing."

CANADA'S LABOUR NEEDS

Growth of seasonal agricultural workers program 1974-2007

Year Number of workers %
1974 203 --
1975 402 98
1985 834 107.5
1990 5,143 516.7
1995 4,886 - 5.0
1999 7,574 55
2000 9,175 21.1
2001 10,529 14.8
2002 10,681 1.4
2003 10,595 -0.8
2004 10,720 1.1
2005 11,720 9.5
2006 12,868 9.8
2007 14,274 10.9

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