Noé Arteaga knows first-hand what it’s like to be a seasonal migrant worker in Canada. He’s a Canadian citizen now, but his first trip to Canada was nearly his last.
Arteaga has built a life for himself in Halifax since moving here after gaining his permanent residency in 2012. He has found employment in the construction industry and a way to give back to the community through his volunteer efforts with No One is Illegal (NOII), a collective advocating for the rights of immigrants and refugees. It’s a cause that’s close to his heart because it was his rights that were violated when he first came to Canada in 2008.
That first trip was as one of the thousands of seasonal migrant workers who come every year to work in the agriculture industry thanks to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Originally from Guatemala, Arteaga came to work at a tomato greenhouse in Quebec for 11 months. He only made it for about five months before his employer sent him home. The reason? He tried to help a sick co-worker at the greenhouse.
“That’s when I start finding out things, (like) what’s a closed work permit and how it gives you employment, but you cannot work elsewhere,” Arteaga says about his experience when he returned to Canada to fight for his own rights. The legal limitations of a closed work permit can put these workers at risk. They won’t report abuse from employers because those same employers have the power to restrict their chances to come back next season. There’s also a lack of resources available in different languages, including their own mother tongues, which limits their ability to fully understand basic labor rights or how the health care system in Canada works.
Arteaga returned to Canada in October of that year while his permit was still valid, but only because his family convinced him to give Canada another shot.
“The reason why I came back is because my family thought I would find justice in Canada. They said it’s not like any country in Latin America, full of corruption.”
And find justice he did. Legal proceedings were started against his employer to gain lost income and he filed for permanent residency status as well. Both issues were resolved in his favour in 2012.
That’s also when Arteaga discovered Halifax. He says the city reminds him of the rural area he comes from in Guatemala.
“After living in Montreal for many years, Halifax is the perfect size,” he says.
At first, the move to a calmer Nova Scotia was also a move away from the activism for migrant workers that marked his life in Montreal. Throughout his time in Montreal, Arteaga created a network of support and friendships, heavily rooted in his activism for the rights of migrant workers. He made a name for himself among those struggling with cultural and language barriers in Canada and back home in Guatemala too. Through his activism, he helped bring the story of fellow Guatemalans seasonal workers in Canada to Prensa Libre, one of the largest newspapers in Guatemala.
Even though this international story was not good news for Canada, his fellow Guatemalans still reached out to Arteaga to learn more about how to move to Canada.
“Even if we tell them things are not as easy in Canada, they still want to come because things are much worse in Guatemala.”
Arteaga’s move to Halifax saw him start working in hospitality and in construction later. His activism slowed down too, but never really stopped. His work is this area eventually attracted the attention of NOII and he began working with the group in 2021.
With his personal experience, and Spanish as his mother tongue, Arteaga dedicates his volunteer time at NOII to reaching out to seasonal agricultural workers coming to Nova Scotia. He gets to know their needs and gives them an equal they can talk to.
“I pass information. It is not only that I speak Spanish, but I also feel (I create) relationships between people on the same level, with a shared experience. …from that, people already make a connection… I don’t have to tell them, ‘I know how hard you work; I know what it is like…’ I don’t have to use those words because they already assume that I know.”
Now a Canadian citizen, Arteaga becomes not only a confident, but also a role model for them.
He is a valuable volunteer for NOII, liaising with groups of newly arrived seasonal migrant agricultural workers, helping them navigate the process of mandatory 14-day quarantines in hotels and informing them what their rights are once they’re sent to their workplace.
“(My activism) is more about letting them know their rights because often employers do not let them know their rights,” he says.
Arteaga also helps identify the needs and barriers these workers face, not only linguistical, but cultural too. In a hotel, for example, the workers from Mexico received arroz con frijoles (rice and refried beans) everyday as the hotel believed it to be the typical menu in Mexico.
“You fall into a stereotype of what Mexican people eat,” Arteaga says.
Working through cultural and language barriers is something Arteaga emphasizes as one of the key areas Canada should improve for seasonal migrant agricultural workers moving forward. He wants the country to provide information in the languages of the workers’ countries of origin, not just to guide them through their mandatory quarantine and work placements, but to explain essential services such as the health care system.
“If you bring people in from a specific country, create materials and resources for them to be informed,” he says.
New pathways to permanent residence
On April 14, 2021, the Government of Canada announced six new pathways to permanent residence for 90,000 essential workers. Beyond the headline, the Migrant Rights Network released a report in the first week of May about how thousands of migrants were excluded from these new pathways.
These new pathways require applicants have a minimum of one year of work experience, over three years. On paper, many seasonal migrant workers could qualify, as some of them have been coming to Canada for 10 consecutive years or more. However, speakers during the press conference organized by the Migrant Rights Network pointed at other barriers:
Gary is a migrant farm worker from Mexico working in Ontario, who is part of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. He explained the main barrier for seasonal workers like him is the English test. “When we come here as seasonal workers, there is no request for an education level more than Elementary school, but then this program asks for a CLB Level of 4. Some of us do not know to use a computer. We know how to speak [English] but not how to write, so for many of us, even if we have spent years working in Canada and speaking English daily, we cannot achieve a Level 4.”
The cost of this exam ($300) is also an additional barrier for them.
Syed Hussan, member of the Migrant Rights Network Secretariat and Executive Director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change emphasized the importance of permanent residence status for all that the organization emphasized last year with the campaign #StatusForAll: “Permanent status is crucial because is how migrants can assert the rights they have. (…) Without it, migrants are dying. Permanent status for all is a matter of life and death.”
Hussan also pointed out that racialized unemployment is at a historic high in Canada and that limiting these new pathways to 90,000 accepted applicants creates chaos and disparities. “Migrants from Western countries have an advantage in this program,” he explains, referring at how, due to COVID-19, travelling from Western countries to Canada nowadays is easier than from Eastern countries.