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The all-female labour force of temporary foreign workers from Mexico sort and grade cherries at the Jealous Fruits facility near Kelowna, B.C., on Aug. 19, which is kept cool to keep the cherries fresh.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Maria Carmona greets her mother, they embrace, hands clasped and foreheads touching.

They have been through this ritual before. For the past five years, Ms. Carmona, 51, has left her home in Libres – west of Mexico City, in the province of Puebla – to work at a cherry-packing plant near Kelowna, saying goodbye each time to her mother and children.

But the departures have not grown easier and the reunions are bittersweet, shadowed by the older woman's failing health.

Ms. Carmona's mother, Maria Lopez – who has had 20 children, at least three of whom have gone to work in Canadian fields, packing plants or greenhouses – wasn't happy when she first heard of her daughter's plans to go to British Columbia. She worried about her daughter's safety and how her grandchildren would fare. Now, she is resigned.

After all, Ms. Lopez says, what other option does her daughter have?

It is a common rationale. The women who work at Jealous Fruits – 118 last summer – are nearly all single mothers and count on the money they make in Canada to feed, clothe and educate their children.

In six or eight weeks in Canada – transportation covered, board and room in dorm-like accommodations subsidized – Ms. Carmona can make as much as she would for the rest of the year cleaning homes in Mexico. She and other women in the packing plant make about $10 an hour.

"To save anything, I have to come to work in Canada," she says through a translator.

Women account for a small percentage – an estimated 3 per cent, or fewer than 1,000 – of the roughly 30,000 workers who come each year to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). They are hired for repetitive, painstaking work. At Jealous Fruits, Mexican women work in the packing plant, where they sort and package premium cherries destined for the Chinese market. Men hired through the program work primarily outside, in vineyards and orchards. The jobs are sought-after and women tend to return year after year; at Jealous Fruits, the return rate is 80 per cent.

Launched in 1966 as a bilateral agreement between Canada and Jamaica, SAWP has since been expanded to include other provinces and countries, including Mexico in 1974. Because of "proven acute labour shortages" in agriculture, the program was spared some of the reforms Ottawa imposed on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program this year, including a 10-per-cent cap on low-wage TFWs as a percentage of the overall workforce for employers with 10 or more employees.

Jealous Fruits has about 600 workers on its payroll during peak season, with about a third of those – around 200 – coming from Mexico.

SAWP has been described as a model program for the security it provides for workers – who are covered by provincial employment regulations – and for employers, who have come to rely on seasonal workers to tend crops ranging from lettuce to grapes for high-end wines.

But advocacy groups cite flaws in the program, including a system that ties workers to specific employers and can make them reluctant to speak out about problems, such as shoddy housing or pesticide exposure. Women – because of their lack of economic opportunities in Mexico – are even more vulnerable to abuse than men, advocates say.

For Ms. Carmona, a government-sanctioned job is preferable to working illegally. A few years ago, she paid a coyote – a person who smuggles people across the Mexico-U.S. border – $3,000 to escort her and two of her four children across the Rio Grande to the United States. Once there, she struggled to earn enough to pay for rent and food and worried about being deported. Her brothers had already worked in Canada and she decided to return to Mexico and apply to SAWP.

The rationale that sends workers north shows no sign of disappearing. Twenty years after the North American free trade agreement came into effect, Mexico's poverty rate – about 52.3 per cent in 2012 – is nearly the same as it was in 1994, according to a 2014 report by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. Mexico has gained ground in some areas, such as automobile manufacturing: Five new assembly plants announced over the past two years are forecast to generate $6-billion of investment and more than 10,000 new jobs. But those jobs are in cities and go mostly to men.

Recently, Mexico has tipped into political crisis over the September disappearance of 43 students, with the event and its unresolved aftermath resulting in renewed anger over drug-fuelled violence in some parts of the country.

Women like Ms. Carmona – from rural areas, with limited education and significant family obligations – can find SAWP their best option. Irma Gutierrez has used her Canadian earnings to buy a plot of land. Currently growing sugarcane, the property is in Limones, a sleepy town in the province of Veracruz. One day, she hopes to build a house.

One of seven children, Ms. Gutierrez left school at 14. She works nearby when she can, especially picking coffee beans. But the season is short, lasting only a couple of months in the fall, and the pay is dismal – the equivalent of only a few dollars a day. So she goes to Canada.

"My parents help a lot, but coming [to B.C.] lets me help my parents," Ms. Gutierrez says.

Most of the young people leave, says her father, Benigno Gutierrez Hernandez, gesturing to a vacant house nearby. In the past, all the crops that grew in the area, including coffee, were worth more and provided for their needs. Now, the crops are worth less and it is harder to get by.

Ms. Gutierrez, like Ms. Carmona, says she plans to return to Jealous Fruits again next summer, taking her place in a plant where cherries roll by so steadily that sometimes the women see them in their sleep. As long as I have life and can do it," she says. "As long as they keep asking me back."

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