In Search of the Open Door: Labour Migration from Colombia to Canada

"Enriching - Motivating - Comfortable - Absolutely 100 per cent successful!" are the words used by the employees and management of Maple Leaf Foods to describe their experience with labour migration.

"We have nothing but good stories to tell," says Dan Lenton, Production Manager of the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Brandon, Manitoba.

Javier Andres Avellaneda, who recently arrived from Colombia, chooses the word comfortable to describe his experience so far. "When you try something on and it fits and feels good, you say it is comfortable.  Well that is how I feel since I arrived in Brandon.  Everyone has made us feel welcome.  We are respected by our supervisors."

A labour shortage in Canada prompted Maple Leaf Foods to venture into foreign recruitment in 2002.

Lenton explains :  "Parts of Canada are booming.  For example, in Alberta there is a lot of work and higher pay, so many Canadians are moving to that province.  And Manitoba, which is mainly agricultural and not densely populated, is facing a shortage of workers."

This particular Maple Leaf plant, the largest employer in Brandon with 1,650 employees and with plans to increase its workforce to 2,200, recently welcomed 149 migrant workers from Colombia.

Susan Boeve, Head of International Recruitment for Maple Leaf plants in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan confirms they currently employ more than 1,100 migrant workers from China, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, and Ukraine.

IOM and Maple Leaf have signed bilateral agreements with Colombia and Georgia and trilateral agreements with Honduras and Mauritius.  "Over the next years we will be working with IOM to bring more foreign workers to Maple Leaf from these and other countries," explains Boeve who has her bags packed and is ready for her long journey to Mauritius to recruit the next group of Maple Leaf employees.

Twenty-seven year old Miguel Mahecha arrived in Canada at the end of September.  "In Bogotá I worked in the meat processing industry but the wages were very low and the hours very long.  I decided to migrate because of lack of opportunities."

He shares a brand new two-bedroom apartment with three other Colombians, so he is happy and not alone, but he misses his family.  "I miss my girlfriend, my mother, father and sister.  I call them often.  I brought my laptop but I still do not have access to the Internet at my place, so I go to the public library to send emails home."

One month is all it took for Miguel to make one of the most important decisions of his life. "I want to stay in Canada and become a permanent resident," he says confidently.  "The people of Brandon have been good to us.  The Salvadorians who have been here for a few years have been very helpful.  Also, the church has given us furniture, clothing, kitchen utensils and other things to begin our new lives."

Javier Andres left his wife and three year old daughter in Colombia. He is very wise for his 25 years.  "I see a wide door that has opened for us.  I also want to stay in Canada and plan to bring my family as soon as I become a permanent resident.  Why would I go back to Colombia?  Sure I love my country, but Canada is offering stability; financial and personal security.  I can aspire to owning a car, a house; I have so many opportunities here," he explains excitedly.

Maple Leaf managers are proud of the 95 per cent retention rate since they began hiring foreign workers.   " In 2002 we were in the initial stages, now it has become second nature for me to ring Susan and say,  ' we need employees, so  where  are we off to next? '  We're in this for the long term," says Lenton.

The face to face interview is the most important part of the hiring process.  Boeve likens it to bringing a baby to the managers.

"It's their baby, and this is why I always travel with plant personnel to do the final interviews," adds Boeve.

The selected candidates are hired for a period of two years under the temporary foreign worker programme.  At the end of the two years, Maple Leaf nominates those wishing to stay in Canada to the Provincial Nominee Programme.  Once approved, the migrant is awarded permanent residence status and can bring their spouse and minor children to Canada.

"Maple Leaf helps those wishing to apply for permanent residence to gather their documents and fill in the required forms.  This is a costly process and may require a lawyer,"   explains Boeve.

Maple Leaf finds apartments to let in the city and pays the first month's rent.  They also provide beds and bedding, a welcome package, a one month bus pass and grocery coupons to help the new foreign employees until they receive their first paycheck.

Maple Leaf currently produces all of its employee communications in four languages; but Boeve says soon it could be more.

"We want to select people from different nationalities to keep the plants culturally mixed.  I recently travelled to Honduras.  Working with IOM we selected a group of 35 persons for our plant in Alberta.  They should be arriving soon,"

Leonardo Guerrero ,  a 27-year old from Bogotá ,  is an industrial engineer.  "In my country I was making the equivalent of CA$ 400 per month.  And at Maple Leaf I am making CA$ 323 per week.  Great persons are made from the bottom up, and I know that I can move ahead.  This is what prompted me to migrate to Canada.  In Colombia the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  High positions are assigned to friends or relatives," he muses.

Miguel interjects:"In Colombia the door is not wide open for everyone to enter.  We are opening doors in Canada for other Colombians."

Maple Leaf Foods is a Canadian-based food processing company with more than 22,500 employees across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia, and operates more than 100 facilities.