Quebec seeing rise in injured temporary foreign workers hired to fill labour gaps

Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet announced increased oversight by the province's workplace health and safety board of employers hiring temporary foreign workers, following a rise in reported accidents. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)
Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet announced increased oversight by the province's workplace health and safety board of employers hiring temporary foreign workers, following a rise in reported accidents. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)

The number of temporary foreign workers injured on the job in Quebec has more than doubled in the past two years, as the province relies on more migrant workers to fill labour shortages.

Quebec Labour Minister Jean Boulet said Wednesday the Quebec workplace health and safety board (CNESST) will do more to try to protect migrant workers by hiring more inspectors and increasing its oversight over employers.

Last year, the province struck a deal with Ottawa to allow Quebec employers to triple the number of temporary foreign workers they hire by the end of 2023 — a notoriously precarious workforce whose well-being depends on the goodwill of their employers.

"I want to reiterate once again that these workers have the same rights and obligations as all Quebec workers, and that Quebec employers have the same obligations toward them," Boulet said.

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

In 2019, Boulet said Quebec employers hired 23,300 temporary foreign workers. That number was up to 38,500 in 2022, the minister said at a Quebec City news conference on Wednesday.

In that same timeframe, the number of workplace accidents reported by temporary foreign workers went from 154 in 2019 to 362 in 2022. In 2021, when migrant workers were more widely permitted to enter the country following pandemic restrictions, there were 214 such accidents reported to the CNESST.

In a pilot project last year, the CNESST created a prevention team to train workplaces on Quebec labour laws and Boulet said the team would be made permanent and see its staffing increased from 12 to 22 agents.

He said the province is also adding 141 inspectors specializing in labour laws to the existing 291 inspectors whose current focus is health and safety.

Advocates for migrant workers say they welcome the additional oversight but are sceptical about whether the measures announced by Boulet will be enough, noting resources for the workers — both from non-profits and in government — haven't had time to adapt.

"It's good news, but we'll have to see how it's put into action," said Michel Pilon, the co-founder of a migrant farm workers' support network, the Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec (RATTMAQ).

RATTMAQ opened offices in several cities across the province in the past year and a half, thanks to an increase in its government funding but still struggles to respond to all the complaints from workers about their employers, Pilon said.

The CNESST team of prevention agents that was piloted last year only visits workplaces where the employer has requested their help.

"Typically, those aren't the employers we have issues with," Pilon said.

Boulet did not say whether that would change with the increase in agents.

The Montreal-based Immigrant Workers Centre says it's still reviewing Boulet's announcement, but that measures so far taken by the government haven't reflected an accurate understanding of the problems migrant workers face.

"And now, with more sectors of work, the problems have multiplied and our feeling is that these programs still are machines to produce undocumented people after all," said Manuel Salamanca, who works with the IWC on temporary foreign worker issues.

Treatment of foreign workers under scrutiny

The recent deaths of two temporary foreign workers in Quebec — as well as reports that migrant workers were being paid less at some major employers than their Quebec-resident peers — has increased scrutiny of the province's treatment of foreign workers.

Earlier this week, a 45-year-old Mexican man named Jose Leos Cervantes died crossing the United States border from Quebec.

Pilon said Cervantes had been a temporary foreign worker in the agricultural industry but didn't have more details. His group, as well as groups representing farms hiring migrant workers, have noticed an alarming rise workers leaving farms unannounced.

The groups counted 276 desertions from agricultural temporary foreign workers in 2021 and 484 just a year later, in 2022.

"It's exponential," Pilon said.

Some of the workers are believed to be enticed to work under-the-table while many others walk into the U.S. hoping for better working conditions. Worker advocates believe some of the desertions are a result of abuse at Quebec workplaces, but say they could be motivated by several other reasons, including meeting up with family south of the border.

Another temporary foreign worker died in July 2021 at a farm about 60 km south of Quebec City. Ottoniel Lares Batzibal, 38, was crushed by a pickup truck while apparently trying to change its tire.

A Quebec Labour Tribunal judge ruled earlier this month that Batzibal's death was not a workplace accident and that his family in Guatemala would not be receiving compensation because it occurred off work hours and that he was simply changing the tire as a favour to his employer, not as part of his work duties.

"Everything about this accident was work-related, but for some reason the judge didn't see that," said Pilon, who is looking into other ways the family could be compensated.

Recent CBC and Radio-Canada investigations have also unveiled pay inequities between temporary foreign workers and coworkers who are from Quebec.