An association defending temporary foreign workers' rights in Quebec says several workers have fled conditions they said were inhumane at a farm in the Laurentians, north of Montreal.
The association, the Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec (RATTMAQ), says several workers contacted it asking to leave the Pitre farm near Mont-Laurier, about 220 kilometres northwest of Montreal, because of their living and working conditions.
Michel Pilon, RATTMAQ's co-ordinator, says workers told his group they were forced to work up to 18 hours a day, without any days off.
"They barely sleep three hours and this has been going on for three months, the workers tell us," Pilon said.
"It's unacceptable to make people work these kinds of hours."
The advocacy group says the situation at Pitre is emblematic of what can happen amid a serious labour shortage, increased demand for local produce and work permits that are tied to a single employer.
Jérémie Pitre, who co-owns the farm with his two brothers, Jonathan and Olivier, has defended the farm against the workers' allegations, saying the farm invested in better living spaces for temporary foreign workers this year.
However, he said, there was a period of about three and a half weeks in August, when workers were asked to work days of up to 18 hours because "all the strawberries ripened at once [because of a heat wave]. We were losing entire fields."
Pitre said the following day, the workers could choose to work shorter hours. Workers were never forced to work those 18-hour days, he said, adding the farm bought them meals so they wouldn't have to spend time cooking.
Quebec's labour law stipulates that a person must have at least 32 consecutive hours of rest per week.
According to an official with the Mexican consulate, three workers flew back to Mexico recently, asking for their contracts to be voided after they complained of poor conditions.
Felipe González Lugo, a diplomat for Mexican consular protection, confirmed the consulate visited the farm Monday, after several Mexican workers reached out about cramped and dirty living quarters, as well as long hours.
"Although the farm complies with the standards established by the local authorities, we have been able to establish that there are important improvements to be made to make the habitat more dignified," González Lugo said in an email.
"We have also heard some complaints about working hours, and days which are sometimes too long."
CBC has viewed three pay slips for the periods of Aug. 8-21 and Aug. 22-Sept. 9, which listed totals of 179, 187 and 194 hours. That means the average workday over that period was about 13 hours, with no days off.
The workers are paid Quebec's minimum wage, $13.50 per hour.
Pitre says the farm is down about 15 workers since the start of the season. He said five or six were sent back to their countries by the farm because of complaints from other workers; another two asked to be sent home because of family problems.
He said seven more left the farm, on foot, soon into the season without saying why.
Pilon, of RATTMAQ, believes many of those workers left because of the long days and cramped living.
"That place was not made for 198 people to live on, plain and simple," he said.
Farm has seen rapid growth
The farm, which sits amid picturesque rolling hills in the small municipality of Lac-des-Écorces, was started in 2016 by the three brothers and began with the help of six Guatemalan temporary foreign workers. Last year, it hired about 100, but this year that number nearly doubled to 198.
Jérémie Pitre says the increase was "calculated," but admits the company has grown fast.
A column published in La Presse in August reported on how the Pitre farm managed to sell its strawberries to Costco, despite the store being known to avoid purchasing local produce.
The column cites the brothers' invention of a tractor attachment with a large tent-like structure spanning 24 rows of strawberries allowing workers to pick faster without having to carry boxes.
The contraption, which CBC saw on a visit to the farm this week, includes a toilet and lights so workers can continue picking after dark.
RATTMAQ also visited the farm this week, meeting with the owners and workers. After discussions, Jérémie and Jonathan Pitre agreed to work with the organization to improve worker conditions at the farm.
But after the visit, RATTMAQ says at least seven workers got in touch to say they didn't feel comfortable speaking about their issues with the Pitre brothers.
Pitre believes the complaints stem from misunderstandings and a lack of human resources staff at the company, due to Quebec's labour shortage.
On Thursday, as workers stood in a circle with RAATMAQ members, a handful defended the farm, saying berry-picking is a tough job. But a few others who spoke with CBC privately said working there was both "good and bad," and that they had no choice because they needed the money to support their families.
Pitre says he understands the workers are tired because it was a demanding season and though the workers now have one to two days off per week, they have had no real time off since the spring.
Advocates call for better norms
Though RATTMAQ says the Pitre farm living spaces appear to be up to code, migrant labour advocates have decried the federal norms for temporary foreign worker lodging, which are different from norms for other types of workers who sleep at their workplace.
For example, there is no restriction on the use of bunk beds for temporary foreign workers, only a minimum amount of space between beds, at 45 centimetres.
"Which we believe inadequate given the measures that must be put in place to contain COVID-19," González Lugo, of the consulate, wrote, noting there were four workers per room in some cases.
Meanwhile, Quebec has outlawed the use of bunk beds in workplaces such as mining or forestry camps since the 1980s.
According to federal law, there must be one toilet and one shower for every 10 temporary foreign workers and one fridge for every six workers.
"That's just not enough," said Pilon.
Neither the Quebec nor the Canadian government sets a limit on the number of workers who can live in one room. The INSPQ has asked that there be at least nine square meters of space per two people in a room.
Quebec is relying more on labour from temporary foreign workers than in the past. A total of 20,000 were expected to arrive in 2021, 16,000 of whom were to work in agriculture. Most of the workers come from Mexico and Guatemala. Those numbers have doubled since 2015. Most of those workers are housed by their employers.
Most temporary foreign workers in Canada are issued work permits tied to one employer, which Pilon says discourages them from speaking up when they are mistreated.
He is calling on the federal government to end the practice of closed work permits, and allow the workers to find a new employer if they choose to leave or are terminated.
"It puts the workers in vulnerable situations. This farm is a patent example, and it's not right."