On October 25, agricultural producer Jean Lemay became the first Quebec employer to be forever banned from accessing the temporary foreign worker program for violations of labor laws. He had previously been convicted of other offenses, including one criminal.
There are now 19 agricultural workers from Guatemala who are paying the price for this situation, left without work and without pay for more than a month, in Saint-Jude, in Montérégie.
A month after the end of this permanent ban, representatives of several ministries, consulates of Guatemala and Mexico as well as rights organizations went to look for them in their employer’s accommodation.
After quickly packing their bags last Friday, these men are now housed in a safe place in the Montreal region, more specifically on the South Shore. “We are very disappointed and stressed. Our families haven’t received anything for weeks there, so we all chose to go back, ”says one of them, Carlos Mendez.
“The last thing we want are problems, we came only to work,” adds his neighbor at the table, who prefers to keep his name silent for fear of reprisals.
Mr. Lemay had not answered the questions of the To have to at the time of this writing. He was still the target of investigations by two police forces and several public organizations.
This agricultural producer was indeed known to several police and government entities, and this, since at least 2011. He was convicted of tax fraud in 2020 and 2012. He was also denounced for unsanitary housing by other foreign workers and has been investigated for irregular trade for the first time in 2012. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) refused to release the conclusion “for reasons of confidentiality”.
In April 2018, he was arrested on five criminal counts, after a cannabis seizure by the Sûreté du Québec. Mr. Lemay was acquitted of extortion, drug production, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. However, he was found guilty of the fifth count, possession of criminal property, or “stolen goods”, last April, a few weeks after receiving the green light from ESDC to recruit 146 temporary foreign workers.
In the end, 80 foreign workers landed in the country in 2021 with an exclusive work permit bearing his name, as required by the criteria of the immigration program. The majority have already left, their contracts ending earlier.
ESDC says it does not have “the authority to conduct a criminal background check.” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) systematically refers any question to ESDC, even if it is IRCC that grants temporary work permits.
“We have to stop closing our eyes. For me, this is negligence on the part of the ministries, ”says Michel Pilon, coordinator of the Network of Assistance to Migrant Agricultural Workers in Quebec (RATTMAQ).
“It is not normal that it takes so long to react in a case like this one”, says the one who accompanies the group of Guatemalans.
Challenging environment “
According to RATTMAQ, it was an outbreak of COVID-19 among foreign farm workers, a breach of quarantine and allegations of “hiring” labor to other farmers without authorization that led to the ban permanent with a fine of $ 198,750.
ESDC declined to confirm these claims, but its platform for non-compliant employers mentions in particular that “the employer prevented the foreigner from complying with a decree or a regulation made under the Emergency Measures Act or the Quarantine Act”, is he for example statement.
After the ban fell, five entities carried out searches on October 26, 2021, including the Committee on Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work (CNESST), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Sûreté du Québec.
Worker Carlos Mendez says he was notified a few days before these searches that his employer “was working irregularly”. This father contracted COVID-19 shortly after his arrival in Quebec, last May, and 15 of his colleagues were also infected, he says. “The whole season has been very difficult this year, we feel desperate,” he said.
He was employed by Jean Lemay mainly for the cultivation of cucumbers and squash for contracts of six to seven months and for the fifth consecutive year. The 19 workers who escaped from this farm, however, claim that they were “loaned” to other farms, a practice prohibited without the required permits. “We were sent from one place to another, from one day to the next. We thought it was allowed since our visa is in agriculture, ”says Mendez on behalf of his colleagues.
Jean Lemay does not, however, hold an employment agency license, according to the CNESST register. The Commission confirmed that its investigation does indeed concern the regulation on placement agencies and recruitment agencies of temporary foreign workers, without being able to give further details.
The Mexican Consulate in Montreal further informed the To have to that at least 10 Mexican nationals are still employed by Mr. Lemay, but that they have other migratory statuses.
Gathered in a room where they are now housed in Boucherville, the 19 workers must now determine who will get one of the nine seats on Wednesday morning’s flight to their home country. “Who has a toddler baby? Asks an employee of the Guatemalan consulate. “Me, my son was born yesterday,” said one of them, raising his hand timidly. A dozen others will have to wait until next week.