By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) - Mexico is pushing for changes to Canada's migrant farmworker program, a top Mexican official told Reuters on Tuesday, as migrants beset by natural disasters call for better pay, accessible care, labour mobility and employment insurance.
Mexico is renegotiating its Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program agreement with Ottawa. The agreement outlines Mexican migrant farmworkers' rights and conditions of their employment in Canada. But this contract renewal is part of a larger rethink of the program that started last year, said Juan Gabriel Morales Morales, head of the consular section of Mexico's embassy in Canada.
"Everything is on the table. ... It's overhauling completely the operation of the program," he said.
It comes as migrant farmworkers in British Columbia are facing the second atmospheric river in as many weeks just months after record-setting heatwaves made bunkhouses unlivable and work treacherous or impossible.
Among the key issues Mexico hopes to tackle are eligibility for employment insurance, restrictive criteria for which have left some who cannot work because of flooding without pay, advocates say.
Mexico is also seeking an end to "early repatriation," which Morales Morales said forces workers to return home even when they still need health care in Canada or when a contract ends early but they could find work elsewhere.
Many of these problems have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters, Morales Morales said.
Migrant farmworkers are key to Canada's C$68.8 billion agricultural sector and account for about one-fifth of the country's agricultural workforce, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
And some 60,000 migrant farmworkers - many from Central America and the Caribbean, although not all of them part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program - come to Canada as part of an annual migration that ramps up in spring.
Canada's employment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mexico is not taking on one key demand from advocates, however: an end to the "closed" work contracts that tie migrants to one employer.
"When an agricultural worker comes to Canada, the person depends absolutely, completely on the employer. ... If you're having a problem, if the person is pushing you to work more than normal, you don't have an option," said Carlos Rojas, president of advocacy group Conseil Migrant.
Rojas criticized Mexico-Canada negotiations for excluding migrant workers themselves.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Marguerita Choy)