Mexico has traditionally been a country of emigration with large movements of permanent, temporary, and irregular migrants to the United States playing a significant role in both countries’ political economies. In the past two decades, Mexico’s economic growth provided more employment prospects at home for both its nationals and foreign migrants, while job opportunities for Mexicans in the US decreased as a result of economic contraction following the 2008 financial crisis and stricter enforcement of border controls. In parallel, undocumented migration from Central America through Mexico into the US increased, placing the government under considerable pressure from the US and internationally. The impact of Covid-19 on the Mexican economy, and expectations of a more migrant-friendly environment under the Biden administration may result in another increase in Mexican migration to the US. While the government is not heavily focused on the situation for Mexican workers migrating overseas, with domestic security and economic challenges taking priority, it has a clear preference for government-to-government bilateral recruitment over private sector recruitment. There is no bilateral scheme with the United States, where private recruitment agents mediate access to temporary visa programmes. However, close to 27,000 workers per year migrate to Canada under the bilateral Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program with Canada. Demand for places on the scheme, which is stringently managed in comparison to the poorly regulated private recruitment industry, is high. The scheme has been criticised for its low level of female participation, and in recent years the government has taken some steps aimed at reducing discriminatory hiring practices among Canadian farmers.
More than a fifth of Canada’s population was born outside of the country and under the Trudeau government’s economic strategy the rate of immigration has increased, with a plan to boost Covid-19 recovery by admitting 421,000 new permanent residents per year by 2023. Alongside permanent immigration schemes, the federal government manages several temporary migration programmes, with responsibility for employment standards, workplace safety, labour recruitment, and health falling under provincial jurisdiction. The numbers of foreign workers arriving in Canada under the main temporary programmes, the International Mobility Program (IMP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP), have nearly tripled in the last decade. Both schemes are driven by employer demand for foreign workers rather than bilateral agreements with origin states, with the exception of the SAWP agreements that sit under the TFWP. Various sectors of the economy now depend to some extent on temporary foreign workers - foreign workers made up 26% of the crop production workforce in 2017, for example. This reliance on overseas labour appears to be in tension with government commitments to provide jobs to Canadians. As a result, businesses have to go through what they see as a burdensome and costly Labour Market Impact Assessment each time they want to recruit a non-national, for most low-wage jobs. In that context, employers have pushed back against increasing pressure to abolish the employer-specific (or “closed”) work permit that ties workers to a single employer. Advocates and experts contend that this is one of the greatest drivers of worker precarity and associated human rights abuses. Many workers, including those in the SAWP, fear that they could have their contracts terminated if they complain about conditions, resulting in their repatriation and loss of crucial income. The government has stopped short of fully overhauling the closed worked permit, instead introducing an open permit for workers who report certain forms of abuse. Meanwhile the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the national debate about the country’s reliance on a migrant workforce which is arguably not “temporary”, and has amplified calls to improve access for low-wage migrant workers to permanent residency and citizenship.
Recommendations to the Mexican government:
- Conduct a formal, independent review of government policies in relation to Mexican migrant workers being employed outside the country. The review should solicit views from a wide range of stakeholders and should address issues including gender-sensitivity and the effectiveness of current regulation of the recruitment sector.
- Continue to explore possibilities for new government-to-government recruitment programmes, as these at present provide additional protections for Mexican migrant workers and job seekers, in comparison to the private recruitment industry.
- Ensure that the prohibition of gender-based selection by Canadian farmers participating in the SAWP, due to take effect this year, is strictly enforced. When securing new placements for workers who have not been “named”, prioritise the placement of women.
Recommendations to the Canadian government:
- Provide increased job mobility:
- Re-examine options to improve the mobility of migrant workers, with the objective of removing the employer-specific work permit that plays a key role in creating precarity for migrant workers.
- Reduce the administrative burden associated with applying to the Open Work Permit for Vulnerable Workers scheme.
- Expand access to residency to low-wage migrant workers:
- Building on the experiences of the Caregiver and Agri-Food Pilots, expand options for permanent residence for migrant workers in low-wage occupations where there is consistent demand for their services, including providing permanent residence from arrival, or failing that guaranteed pathways to permanent residence, and options to be joined by family members.
- Review the 8-month SAWP work permit limit, which largely precludes SAWP workers from obtaining permanent residence.
- Review whether the language levels required for permanent residence are appropriately accessible for migrant workers in low-wage roles, and extend funding to provide language training to assist migrant workers in meeting language requirements.