By Kay Bisnath, ACORN International, and Pascal Apuwa, ACORN Canada
The Canadian government can no longer afford to be apathetic towards the plight of migrant workers' remittances when they are behind a guest-worker program that accepts candidates based on low levels of education and strong family ties. With such criteria it is unimaginable that the government would be unaware of the role of remittances in the lives of these workers’ families.
Every year, 20,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, mostly men, make the journey to work in Canada’s agricultural sector, largely in southern Ontario and British Columbia. These migrant workers are brought to Canada through the government sponsored Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) for up to eight months. The program describes its function as matching “workers from Mexico and the Caribbean countries with Canadian farmers who need temporary support during planting and harvesting seasons, when qualified Canadians or permanent residents are not available.”
This is no sea cruise. Workers in the SAWP are poorly treated. They are required to work overtime without extra pay and a significant portion of their wages (about 25%) goes towards Canadian taxes and government programs as a donation to the Canadian government since they will never reap any benefits.
The SAWP exploits workers’ desperation to earn Canadian wages. Workers’ strong family ties and socioeconomic statuses emphasize the widespread need for affordable money transferring services. When asked, SAWP representatives admitted to having little knowledge of which money-transferring services program participants utilized or the fees they faced. SAWP workers are left to find ways to remit money without any assistance from the governments that has brought them here.
Using easily accessible Western Union, fees to transfer funds increase dramatically as the transferred sum decreases, often making the service unaffordable. Migrant workers usually send half their paychecks home (about 200-300 dollars). To send these sums with Western Union, fees can range from 7.5% to 12%. This doesn’t include the hidden exchange rate fee that comes out of the amount transferred. This changes daily with the exchange rate fluctuation and has been estimated by ACORN Canada at 4 – 6 %. Migrant workers in Canada have also been known to use Vigo Remittance Corporation to send their money home. While Vigo’s fees are lower than Western Union’s, the fees range from 6 % to 7% (for sums of 200 to 300 dollars), they are still sit above ACORN’s and the G-8's, where Canada is also a primary participant, goal of a flat 5% rate and are still unaffordable for many migrant workers. For the low-wage migrant worker, such rates only further perpetuate their plight.
ACORN International and its federated partners ACORN Canada and ACORN Mexico have made continual demands of the Finance Ministry and provincial governments in both countries to regulate Money Transfer Organizations (MTOs) and cap fees, with only limited success and a limp promise thus far that there will be more disclosure. In the case of bi-national agreements that are moving migrant workers to Canadian soil to serve Canadian business and agricultural interests and profit Canadian tax coffers, can there be any moral or political justification for inaction around remittance profiteering by the Canadian government at all levels? ACORN, Canadian, Mexican, and Caribbean citizens are united in saying, “No!” and demanding change now!