The few words of French that Geovany Perez Garcia has picked up in his six summers in Quebec aren’t enough to carry on a conversation.
But he is able to get his message across when he goes to the bank in Sainte-Marie, in Quebec’s Beauce region.
Every week, he sends money to his parents and younger brothers back home in Guatemala.
“Tengo una gran familia — I have a big family,” Garcia said with a smile. The 29-year-old is one of the 7,275 temporary foreign workers who have made it to Quebec so far this year.
Normally, the province’s farm industry employs 16,000.
Garcia considers himself lucky his paperwork was ready when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America. Guatemalans who were still waiting to have their work visas processed were stuck, he said.
“They lost everything because they weren’t able to travel,” said Garcia. He knows how much there is to lose.
He’s worked at the same berry farm, Aux Fruits de la Colline, for six years. The money he’s made has allowed him to buy his own house and land in Huehuetenango, northwest of Guatemala City.
“Before, I didn’t have a house,” said Garcia. “But now, gracias a Dios, and thanks to my work here, I do. I cultivate coffee and corn — that’s my job now.”
COVID-19 adds to anxiety of leaving
A few kilometres down the road, Guilman Alberto Rueda Lopez is tending to blueberry bushes at Bleuetiere Marland.
For the six months of the year that he’s home, the 28-year-old also works on a farm. But there, he’s paid by the job — not by the hour — which rounds up to around 50 Guatemalan quetzales.
“That’s about eight dollars a day,” he said. “Here, I make that in less than an hour.”
Annie Marcoux, the co-owner of Bleuetiere Marland, said in April that she didn’t know whether Lopez and her three other Guatemalan workers would be able to come.
Even though the province was offering a $100 weekly bonus to get Quebecers out in the fields, Marcoux wasn’t convinced they would stick around for a full season with irregular schedules.
“Working in a field is hard,” Marcoux said.
“Even if it’s Sunday or Monday, there are fruit to pick. And if it’s raining, it’s your day off.”
Her four workers finally managed to make it out of Guatemala, and are willing to make those sacrifices, she said.
“That’s what I’m here for,” said Lopez — back for his third year, this time with his younger brother in tow.
At just 22 years old, Yoni Adolfo Rueda Lopez was hesitant to leave home.
“The truth is I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, what kind of work I’d be doing,” said Yoni.
“There was that,” he said, “but also this disease.”
When the phone call finally came in April, both brothers were anxious about travelling through airports. “Of course a person gets nervous, because no one wants to get sick,” said Guilman.
Outbreaks in Quebec, Ontario farms
Jocelyn St-Denis, the executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers’ Association, said given the tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19 across Canada he is not surprised the virus is showing up on farms.
“Foreign workers who come here are like local workers,” St-Denis said. “If they go to town, if they go out, they face the same risks as you and I face on a daily basis.”
He said in addition to the mandatory 14-day quarantine for workers when they first arrive, farm owners have to respect strict guidelines provided by Quebec’s workplace health and safety board, the CNESST.
Guilman said he feels safe now that he is on the small family farm. The 14-day quarantine was fine, if not a little boring. But those first weeks far from home are when he misses his wife and two children the most.
“On one hand it is difficult and sad,” he said. “But you know that you’re coming here to work and make a better life.”
Working with family helps. And it is also how many workers end up being hired locally.
Garcia is the one who referred Edy Garcia Sales to work at Aux Fruits de la Colline.
They grew up together in Huehuetenango and call themselves cousins, primos. With the price of food and services climbing in Guatemala, he said there are few opportunities right now in his home country.
With a one-year-old daughter waiting at home, he said the trip was worth the risk.
“It’s for them that I’m here, working hard for a better life,” he said.