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Cannabis plants grow inside a Tilray factory hothouse in Cantanhede, Portugal.RAFAEL MARCHANTE/Reuters

Cannabis producer Tilray Inc. TLRY-T quietly terminated the contracts of at least 22 migrant farm workers over the summer, which has forced many of them to abruptly return to their home countries – highlighting the precarity of temporary work permits for tens of thousands such labourers in Canada.

The Leamington, Ont.-based company confirmed the layoffs last week, saying they were part of a “recent effort to right size business operations” while “increasing manufacturing capabilities and automation.”

For years, cannabis producers have relied on the labour of migrant workers from countries such as Jamaica, Guatemala and Grenada to cultivate and tend to cannabis plants in sprawling greenhouses across Canada. However, as some of the largest companies began downsizing and consolidating their operations over the past two years amid sluggish earnings and stagnant demand, migrant workers became casualties of the cannabis bust.

Advocates for migrant workers say that the consequences of ending an employment contract for labourers who enter Canada under the Temporary Foreign Workers program are particularly severe because their work permits are tied to a specific employer. In many cases, the employer provides housing.

“Here we have a situation which is the worst-case scenario for workers. After working hard, sometimes in poor conditions and less than adequate accommodation, they have been disposed of by a company,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the non-profit group Justice for Migrant Workers.

One of the migrant workers laid off by Tilray is Andrel Peters, who arrived in Canada from Grenada in July, 2018, just months before cannabis was legalized, after securing work at Aphria Inc. (The company merged with Tilray in late 2020.) He entered the country as part of the low-skilled agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows employers to hire a migrant labourer for up to 24 months.

Tilray posts record annual revenue but a net loss after booking write-offs

Mr. Peters said he got paid minimum wage for the duration of his employment, and was given accommodation by his employer; his job was to prune cannabis plants and dry them. On June 14, while he was on vacation in Grenada, Mr. Peters received a letter from Tilray saying that he was terminated, without cause. In a recent phone call with The Globe and Mail from Grenada, Mr. Peters described his shock at the termination.

“I worked so hard for them, for so many years, and they treated me so badly. I had all my belongings and my car in Canada … just left there. It feels like they just didn’t care about me, as a person,” he said.

The termination letter, viewed by The Globe, states that Tilray would refund Mr. Peters the cost of his return flight to Grenada and ship his belongings back home. But he says he would love to come back to Canada, as obtaining permanent residency was his main goal of coming to the country in the first place.

The TFW program has been dogged by controversy in past years over concerns about unpaid wages, unsafe living conditions for migrants and companies passing over Canadian job candidates. Critics also say it shields employers from the need to raise wages for domestic workers or make investments that improve the country’s languishing productivity.

Joseph Mesheek, another migrant worker from Grenada, joined Tilray in June, 2021, as a greenhouse assistant. Back in Grenada, Mr. Mesheek had worked at his country’s Ministry of Agriculture for seven years before deciding he wanted to move to Canada to obtain permanent residency. To that end, he obtained employment with Tilray and was granted a 24-month work permit, tied to his employment.

But just a year later, like Mr. Peters, he was terminated without cause and sent back home to Grenada with his belongings; the cost of the flight was covered by Tilray.

“I have a lot of experience with agriculture. Any job in Canada, I’ll take it. I would love another opportunity to come back,” he told The Globe in a phone call from Grenada.

Mikal Skuterud, a labour economist with the University of Waterloo who has done extensive research on the temporary foreign workers program, said that the biggest problem policy makers are faced with when it comes to migrant labourers is their path to permanent residency.

“Workers are willing to put up with poor conditions and employers know that. The very nature of the program – that there is no clear path to permanent residency, even after working in the country for years – distorts both employees’ and employers’ behaviour,” he said.

According to Prof. Skuterud, the fact that migrant workers’ visa status is tied to their employment is essential to how the program functions – generating a dilemma for policy makers.

”If workers can just disappear to another job when they are here, then the employer will say ‘well, this is too much of a risk for me.’ So for the program to be used widely, you have to tie employment to work permits. But then you get all kinds of abuse of workers that we’ve heard about.”

With files from Matt Lundy

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