Foreign workers face a lack of safe conditions, abuse and exploitation: Ethnic and mainstream media coverage

Useful summary of ethnic media coverage and contrast with mainstream media:

Temporary foreign workers and undocumented migrants have been one of the most affected groups during the pandemic, as covered by ethnic media from May to December. “The fact that in 2020, people are dying on farms in Ontario in one of the richest and most socially and technologically advanced countries in the world, Canada, is truly cause for reflection,” an Italian outlet wrote in early July, after multiple reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at farms employing seasonal workers from Latin America and the Caribbean, and deaths of three Mexican workers.

Outlets carried stories by migrants who said they were forced to start working right after arrival (without the 14-day quarantine) or had to quarantine in rooms that had no food or inadequate space to allow for physical distancing. The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change was cited as saying that it had received complaints from more than 1,000 people that their working and living conditions were crowded, they were unable to maintain the two-metre distance and lacked personal protection supplies.

One of the prominent cases was that of a Mexican farm worker, Gabriel Flores, who won compensation from his employer, Scotlynn Farms, in front of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Flores sued Scotlynn Farms after he had been fired for speaking to the media about insufficient protection at the facility, where almost 200 workers had gotten infected with COVID-19.

Live-in care workers were shown to be highly vulnerable as well. A lot of media attention was devoted to a report titled “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing Migrant Care Worker Exploitation During COVID-19,” based on a survey of 201 migrant care workers and released in late October. The report showed that nearly half of the respondents were forced to work longer hours without being paid overtime. Two out of three workers said they weren’t allowed to leave the house, send money back home or even go to the doctor for fearing of breaking family quarantine bubbles.

What clearly transpired in ethnic media coverage was the fact that temporary foreign workers are the backbone of Canada’s food supply and many other essential sectors, but they are not getting basic rights protection.

In fact, as one Filipino outlet observed, Canada has depended on “cheap immigrant labour” from “Chinese railway workers to the Japanese fishermen, to South Asian farmers and loggers, to the Filipino overseas workers.”

Domestic work, health care and hospitality are all sectors that “capitalize on cheap female labour from the Global South,” wrote another, reporting a story of a Filipino woman who was separated from her son for five years as she was working in Kelowna, B.C., as a housekeeper at a hotel and as sanitation staff at a hospital. The pandemic has cost her and her husband their jobs at the hotel, and she still owes a substantial sum to an immigration agency.

“Guardian angels” of Quebec get pathway to permanent residency

Substantial coverage was given to the precarious status of many asylum seekers working or volunteering at long-term senior care homes and in other health-care settings in Quebec, including the price they have paid with their health.

These workers, whom Quebec Premier François Legault called “guardian angels,” are largely Haitians who came to Canada irregularly from the U.S. According to Montreal’s Haitian community advocate Ruth Pierre-Paul, cited in Caribbean media, hundreds of them have sought out jobs in long-term care homes as a quick way to enter the workforce.

After weeks of advocacy, media attention and petitions to the federal government, in August, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced a pathway to permanent residency for asylum claimants working in health care during the pandemic. Several media outlets praised the move, but many also stressed that the program is closed to asylum seekers doing other essential jobs. This has left many people disappointed and triggered further protests.

International students treated like “cash cows”

International students have faced a lot of uncertainty, anxiety and financial pressure in the pandemic months, and ethnic media have covered these struggles closely. As reported, the main dilemma faced by students before the start of the new academic year was whether to attempt entering Canada at the risk of being turned back at the border (which happened to many) or stay in their home countries and study online.

Until October 20, only individuals with study permits issued before March 18 were able to travel to Canada, and solely for a “non-discretionary or non-optional purpose.” Other students were subject to a travel ban.

For students from China and India, who account for the bulk of international students in Canada, attending university online in their home countries has meant having to study at odd hours and cope with internet issues. As reported, students also missed exposure to local culture, which they thought might later affect their chances on the job market. Some consolation came with a July announcement that time spent studying online abroad would be counted toward a post-graduation work permit.

There has been no relief in terms of cost, however. Universities not only refused to give rebates to those studying online; some have even raised tuition fees for foreign students, prompting comments in ethnic media that international students were treated like “cash cows” by “shameless Canadian universities.”

International students already in Canada also struggled. According to Chinese outlets, many Chinese students decided to stay in the country despite classes going online, mostly because the flights were very expensive and hard to come by. They also did not want to risk being stranded back home. But with high costs of living, few summer job opportunities, almost no help from the federal government, and no social activities, students were reported to be feeling helpless, frustrated, anxious and homesick. 

Punjabi broadcast media noted that many students were under pressure to find work to support themselves and send money back to their families. Concerns were also expressed over “suicidal incidents among international students.”

Non-permanent residents in mainstream media coverage

Similar to the coverage offered in ethnic media, coverage by Toronto Star broadly reflected two major perspectives—conveying government policy and programs and also offering human interest stories reflecting the lived experiences of the newcomers, migrant workers, refugees and international students. 

The paper quite extensively explored how immigrants and newcomers to Canada have been affected by COVID-19 pandemic from the economic, social and health and well-being angles. Dozens of articles addressed the issue of temporary farm workers, highlighting their precarious situation as well as legal battles. Solid coverage was also devoted to refugees and asylum seekers and the processes related to their status, brought to readers’ attention via a number of human-interest stories.

The issues facing international students, whether stranded in Canada or overseas, also received attention. Among others, the Star carried discussion regarding tuition fees and opportunities for foreign students to change their status.

Among the Postmedia Network titles, the Windsor Star appeared to carry the most coverage relating to migrants and the pandemic — perhaps unsurprisingly, given that more than half of the local COVID-19- cases during the pandemic’s first wave were among the thousands of migrant workers employed in the agri-food sector in Southwestern Ontario’s Essex County. 

Another significant aspect of the coverage was the call on the government to create a new permanent residency program for migrant workers, including undocumented workers, in sectors facing labour shortages. Advocates were asking the government to allow migrant farm workers to apply for a 12-month open work permit that would maintain or regularize their status while their application for permanent residency was in process.

Insight from MIREMS media monitoring

“Ethnic media has been instrumental in reporting on and clarifying government policy, processes and programs. It has also documented the unique challenges different migrant constituencies face and has been part of successful lobbying efforts for concrete solutions,” summed up Silke Reichrath, Editor-in-Chief at MIREMS.

Of particular concern were temporary foreign workers, international students, asylum seekers, and undocumented workers.

In terms of immigration policy, a lot of coverage was devoted to the impact of COVID on immigration levels, border closures and travel restrictions, visa extensions for temporary residents stranded in Canada, work permit regulations, farm worker rights and COVID safety protocols, COVID-related accommodations for international students, modifications to the Express Entry draws, and the “guardian angel” program for front-line care providers. Ethnic media frequently aired interviews with immigration lawyers and consultants as well as with lawmakers.

Another concern reflected in the ethnic media has been around family reunification. The processing of spousal sponsorship cases has stalled, and ethnic media has reported repeatedly on protests organized to ask the government to resume processing sponsorships.

Methodology: This ethnic media analysis is based on a selection of 350 summaries of articles and broadcast segments in radio, TV, print and web sources between May and December, 2020. These summaries were selected from about 6,000 items on these issues found in 450 active ethnic media sources in Canada monitored by MIREMS.

Source: https://newcanadianmedia.ca/ethnic-media-highlight-exploitation-of-temporary-migrant-workers-troubles-of-international-students-during-pandemic/#ethnic-media

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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