Government urged to speed up foreign-worker applications by farms and meat plants

No surprise. Some administrative bottlenecks likely can (and should) be reduced (e.g., reintroduction of online forms, more streamlined application and renewal applications):

Canadian farmers and meat processors are urging Ottawa to quickly bring in more foreign workers to help ease a labour crisis that is hurting the country’s agriculture industry.

They want the federal government to raise caps and speed up applications for the temporary foreign worker program to allow them to increase production.

Agriculture is one of many sectors struggling to add staff as the Canadian economy tries to recover from the damage caused by the coronavirus.

Although farms and plants were not subject to the sorts of lockdowns faced by restaurants or retailers, the pandemic made travel to rural sites difficult and slowed or stopped international travel. As well, COVID-19 outbreaks in some facilities put migrant workers’ health in danger and hampered operations.

But, agricultural business leaders say, the flow of foreign workers to Canada is integral to keeping the sector functioning as it has struggled for years to retain domestic employees.

Groups, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), Mushrooms Canada and the Canadian Meat Council, say application processing times have grown exponentially during the pandemic, which is making it more difficult for farms and plants to maximize their production.

“When we talk about unfilled jobs, what we’re talking about is lost opportunity,” said Mary Robinson, CFA president and partner of a family farm operation that produces soy, barley and hay in Prince Edward Island. The CFA estimated the agriculture industry lost about $2.9-billion in revenue in 2020 because of low productivity, or about 4.5 per cent of overall sales.

Canadian agriculture has increasingly relied on bringing in workers from overseas to make up for shortfalls in domestic hiring. According to a Statistics Canada analysis from 2020, 27.4 per cent of all workers on crop production in Canada were temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

Meat processors have fewer foreign workers because, by law, there is a cap of 10 per cent or 20 per cent of their work force that can be TFWs. The percentage depends on the amount of a plant’s historical use of the program.

Marie-France MacKinnon, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Meat Council, said her group is calling for the cap to be raised to 30 per cent, which is where it was before the Ottawa lowered it in 2014. That year, the Conservative government tightened the rules to the TFW program, responding to reports that it was being overused and abused by some Canadian businesses.

“Our labour shortage is critical right now,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “It’s over 4,000 empty butcher stations from across the country.”

The federal government said in a statement Thursday that adjustments to the program are made on a continuing basis, depending on changes in labour-market conditions.

Mark Chambers, vice-president of Canadian pork production at Alberta-based Sunterra Farms, says his production runs below capacity because of a shortage of workers. He said his pork-processing plant has 120 stations, 20 of which are empty because there is no one to work them.

Mr. Chambers said he has had difficulty attracting new domestic workers to the company’s farms and plants, which he attributes to the low population of the rural communities, the reluctance of urban Canadians to work in the country and the nature of the work.

“You can’t completely fill every position with Canadians,” he said.

As part of the application to bring in a temporary foreign worker, employers first have to fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment to show that no Canadians want the job. The federal government unveiled a new online form last year to speed up applications. But the website went down in August and has remained offline in the months since then, forcing employers to once again file by e-mail or fax.

Mr. Chambers said using the online portal, the turnaround time on an application was two to seven days – but now that he’s back to old methods, it’s lengthened to two to four weeks.

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said some “technical issues” emerged on the website after an update, and department officials are still working on a fix. The government was not able to provide a timeline for when it would be online again.

The government also said processing times have increased because of an increase in the number of applications.

Representatives of the meat industry say their goal is to bring workers into Canada under the TFW program and then sponsor them for permanent residency, because their ultimate aim is to create a long-term work force in the sector. Ottawa made that easier with the launch of the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot in 2020, which allows agricultural employers to sponsor non-seasonal, full-time employees for permanent residency under some conditions.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance of Canada, said if Canada’s economy requires an influx of new immigrants, those people should be brought in through permanent-residency programs and not work permits that are tied to individual employers.

He said migrant workers who have to rely on their employers’ good graces to stay in the country are open to exploitation and abuse, such as having to endure unsafe working conditions. He said he has worked with TFWs who feared lodging labour complaints because they could lose their work permits if they did.

“Our members say this isn’t a pathway [to permanent residency], it’s a minefield where very few of us will survive to get to the other end,” Mr. Hussan said. “And most of us will be injured or hurt or forced to leave the country.”

Mr. Hussan said one solution is for TFWs and their sponsorship status to be protected under collective bargaining agreements, which helps shield those workers from employer reprisals.

One such agreement covers about 2,000 workers at the Maple Leafs Foods’ pork-processing plant in Brandon. That agreement requires all TFWs to be sponsored for permanent residence, which they can qualify for under the provincial nominee system after working two years.


Migrant workers need priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine

While some of the specific recommendations have merit (e.g., free access to tests and vaccines, not needing a health card to access vaccines), others are either unnecessary or raise broader policy issues.

For example, a cursory search of PHAC and other public health sites indicates COVID information being available in many languages.

Should vaccination be subject to consent for workers in vulnerable settings or not, given the risks to other workers?

While their advocacy for a number of paid sick days makes sense, other advocacy – permanent residency status, full coverage under labour and social protection laws, family reunification and an effective right to collective bargaining – raise broader policy issues that need more reflection and analysis:

Their general points, attentive information in migrant worker languages (some already being done

Last year, in the first COVID-19 wave, 12% of migrant agricultural workers in Ontario were infected with the virus after arriving in Canada, and three men died. Migrant agricultural workers’ incidence of infection exceeded other high risk occupational categories like front line health care workers. But as the 2021 agricultural season quickly approaches, Canada still has no plan to ensure these essential workers receive priority, free and safe access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of 31 January, 5,400 migrant agricultural workers were already in Canada. Over 50,000 more will be returning across the country soon. Media attention waned after the fall harvest season, but COVID-19 outbreaks have continued on farms every month since – including 53 since the end of October.

The virus spreads quickly on farms because migrant workers typically live in crowded employer-provided congregate living quarters. Without a plan to give these workers priority access to the COVID-19 vaccines, we stand on the verge of another season where essential workers will risk their lives to feed Canadians.

Governments promised to increase health and safety inspections for agricultural workers. However, a blitz by health and safety officers this month revealed that nearly one-fifth of Ontario farms are not compliant with COVID safety protocols. Action is required urgently to prevent further tragedy.

Agricultural workers are only the most visible of the 85,000 low-wage migrant workers who come to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program each year. Other migrant workers perform essential jobs delivering in-home care to children, the elderly and people with disabilities as well as working in meat processing plants, warehouses, food preparation, grocery stores, cleaning services, delivery services, construction and many other jobs that keep the economy running. Tens of thousands more workers are undocumented.

Whether they have temporary or undocumented status, migrant workers need priority access to vaccines because most live in congregate settings and work in spaces or roles that preclude physical distancing, putting them at high risk for infection.

Vaccine access must be delivered with keen awareness of the imbalance of power that puts migrant workers at risk of coercion. Access to vaccines must be free, informed, consensual and safe. Migrant agricultural workers from rural Mexico report travelling a day or more into urban centres to take pre-departure COVID-19 tests for which they have been charged up to $350. They must then take another test after arriving in Canada. This is prohibitive for minimum wage workers. It puts them in debt before they start work in Canada which increases the risk of exploitation.

Here are four steps for government to take to protect workers in accessing the vaccine.

First, migrant workers need access to free COVID-19 testing and vaccines. Workers must also be able to receive both of the required vaccine doses while they are in Canada. Unless this is guaranteed, they may return to their home country not fully vaccinated and without access to the same or any vaccine to complete their immunization.

Second, public education about the vaccines must be delivered directly to migrant workers in their own language. Many racialized migrant workers come from communities that distrust the medical system because of longstanding histories of systemic racism in healthcare. Migrant agricultural workers in southern Ontario have particular reasons to be wary after they were subjected to mass DNA testing by police due to racial profiling in 2013.

Third, migrant workers must be able to access vaccines on the basis of informed consent and that consent must be real. Workers must be able to freely agree to or decline a vaccine. Migrant workers’ precarious immigration status and dependence on their employers due to their employer-specific work permits and housing arrangements must not be leveraged to coerce migrant workers into mandatory vaccination.

Fourth, migrant workers must be able to access vaccines in a way that is safe and attentive to their precarious status. Many migrant workers do not have health cards or coverage under provincial healthcare programs due to the nature of their work permit, being between contracts or being on implied status awaiting their permanent residency. Having a health card must not be a precondition for vaccine access.

At the same time, undocumented migrant workers must be able to access vaccines without fear that their immigration status will be disclosed to the Canadian Border Services Agency. Coming forward to protect themselves, their co-workers and the broader community during a global pandemic must not put them at risk of detention or deportation.

But vaccination alone will not eliminate the risks that migrant workers face.

Like 70% of low wage workers, most migrant workers do not have the right to paid sick days. Governments must move immediately to legislate, on a permanent basis, a minimum of 7 paid sick days with an additional 14 paid sick days during a public health crisis. Unless workers can stay home without penalty when they are ill, poverty and the risk of being fired will force them to keep working. At all times, going to work while sick increases the probability of disease spreading. During the pandemic, it means those who are already most marginalized will continue to become ill and die in disproportionate numbers.

Over the past year, the pandemic has laid bare the underlying structures that drive social and economic inequality in our society. While prioritizing migrant worker access to COVID-19 vaccines is of immediate urgency, real security won’t exist until governments address the laws and policies under Canada’s labour migration programs that make migrant workers exploitable. Permanent residency status, full coverage under labour and social protection laws, family reunification and an effective right to collective bargaining would go a long to more lasting security.


Survey shows support for migrant workers getting more benefits and protections, as senators introduce motion for change

Good initiative by Senators Black and Omidvar in commissioning this poll:

Eight in 10 Canadians say temporary foreign workers should be entitled to the same benefits and protection as any other workers in this country, according to a Nanos Research poll.

The survey, commissioned by senators Ratna Omidvar and Rob Black, was released Thursday in the wake of a Star story that highlighted the plight of hundreds of Trinidadian seasonal migrant farm workers, who are stuck in Canada due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and unable to access employment insurance benefits.

The pandemic has shed light on the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers, who pay the same EI premiums as Canadian workers but who have difficulty accessing the benefits due to their precarious immigration status.

Trinidad and Tobago has closed its airports to international flights since March and the estimated 400 stranded workers are on the verge of losing their legal status in Canada as their work permits expire on Dec. 15. Many have been denied EI, with officials saying their “closed” work permit prevents the workers from looking for other employers, resulting in them being declared not “ready or available” for work.

The senators say that in addition to benefits, migrant workers should have “pathways” to obtaining permanent resident status in Canada, something that is currently very limited for these workers.

“The pandemic has highlighted the fact that temporary migrant workers and seasonal agricultural workers are essential to Canada,” said Black. “We are calling on the Government of Canada for pathways to permanency for essential workers, should they so desire.”

The poll of 1,040 Canadians was conducted in late October and independent from the Star story.

It found that 93 per cent of respondents said migrant workers are essential contributors to Canada’s agricultural sector and 81 per cent said they deserved a pathway to permanent residence.

Canada’s agricultural sector depends on the temporary migrant work force, which makes up 17 per cent of the total employment in the sector.

“We need more concrete and equitable improvements to our migrant workers program. Since the workers are essential to our well being and safety, then the safest … and the most human way forward is to provide them with more permanent residency options,” Omidvar said.

Both Black and Omidvar plan to introduce a motion in the Senate on Thursday calling on the Liberal government to create permanent residence pathways for migrant workers.

Source: Survey shows support for migrant workers getting more benefits and protections, as senators introduce motion for change

Virus Hits Foreign Farmhands, Challenging Canadians’ Self-Image

The NYTimes covers seasonal agricultural workers:

Three weeks after they began cutting asparagus in the thawing fields, Luis Gabriel Flores Flores noticed that one of his co-workers was missing. He said he found the man shivering with a fever, in bed — where he would remain for a week.

“I was trying to tell the foremen, ‘He is very ill, he needs a doctor,’” said Mr. Flores, one of thousands of migrant farm workers flown into Ontario in April to secure Canada’s food supply. “They said, ‘Sure, soon, later.’ They never did.”

The sprawling vegetable farm where he worked became the site of one of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. Almost 200 workers, all from Mexico, tested positive, seven were hospitalized and one died: Juan Lopez Chaparro, the one Mr. Flores said he had tried in vain to help.

The farm owner insisted that Mr. Chaparro had been treated promptly and called Mr. Flores a “bad apple” being used by activists to score political points. If that is the case, it has worked: The outbreak and others like it have spurred national protests about the systemic vulnerability of migrant farm laborers, a population unknown to many Canadians until they began to fall ill at a rate 11 times that of health workers.

Canadians pride themselves on a liberal immigration system welcoming to an array of ethnicities and nationalities, contrasting their attitude with what many see as xenophobia in their neighbor to the south. The reality does not always match the rhetoric, but Canada encourages different groups to maintain their cultures, and an embrace of multiculturalism is enshrined in Canada’s charter and self-image. When other world leaders shunned refugees from Syria’s civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed them in person, handing them winter coats.

But in importing large numbers of seasonal farm laborers from abroad and offering them no path to residence or citizenship, Canada looks disturbingly un-Canadian to many of its people. Canada admits temporary workers who stay for most of a year but requires them to return home when their contracts end (the United States does, as well, but they are outnumbered by farm workers who are undocumented and often do stay year-round).

As in the United States, farm workers live for months on their employers’ property, often in large bunkhouses where disease can spread easily. Those who enter Canada with work permits often return year after year with no prospect of ever legally putting down roots. Canada, at least, guarantees them health care, but on isolated farms, gaining access to that care can be difficult.

“In no other immigration category do you have people who come only from certain countries, are trapped in certain occupations, living only on their work sites and must absolutely leave the country at the end,” said Jenna Hennebry, director of the International Migration Research Center at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

“It’s not consistent with our ideals of multiculturalism.”

Professor Hennebry was among a group of academics who warned the Canadian government about the heightened risks migrant farm workers faced from Covid-19 before the first planeload of Mexicans arrived in April.

The coronavirus outbreaks prompted the Mexican government to pause sending workers to Canada for a week in June. In response, Mr. Trudeau said: “We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect. Can we change the system to do better?”

Since then, his government has announced 59 million Canadian dollars — about $45 million — for improved farm housing, sanitation and inspections. But it has not offered the cure that advocates for migrant workers demand: a path to citizenship.

“We have a group of people defined as good enough to work in Canada, but not good enough to stay,” said Vic Satzewich, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “As a country we have to ask ourselves why that’s the case.”

The seasonal agricultural worker program began in 1966, when 264 Jamaican farm hands arrived in Southern Ontario as a temporary solution to chronic farm labor shortages.

It was designed “to prevent Black settlement,” Mr. Satzewich wrote in his book “Racism and the Incorporation of Foreign Labor.” Unlike earlier agricultural worker programs for Europeans, the Jamaican workers were not permitted to apply for Canadian citizenship or bring their families because of fear that there would be “race relations problems” and that they would not assimilate or be “competitive,” he wrote.

The program has expanded to include more than 56,000 workers from a dozen countries, making up one in five farm workers across Canada. The coronavirus has infected more than 1,600 of them in Ontario alone this year and killed three.

In theory, migrant farm workers are protected by all the laws that shield Canadian farm workers. But their contracts state that any worker fired for cause requires “immediate removal” from the country, which keeps people from complaining about abuses, advocates say.

The federal government introduced an enforcement system in 2015, with a complaint line for migrant workers, but Canada’s auditor general deemed it inadequate: Only 13 of 173 planned inspections were completed in the 2016 fiscal year. This year, no farms have been found noncompliant.

“The employers have too much power over their workers,” said Mr. Flores, 36, at a protest by migrant workers and their supporters in downtown Toronto in August. Around him, masked men and women held up pictures of Mr. Chaparro, his deceased co-worker.

“It could have happened to any of us,” said Mr. Flores, a father of two from the outskirts of Mexico City, who has worked on farms across Canada in four of the past six years.

This year, the program placed him at Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers, a family-run agribusiness with a large trucking fleet and 12,000 acres in Ontario, Florida and Georgia.

He tested positive for the virus, but experienced only mild symptoms. The day after he learned of Mr. Chaparro’s death, he left the farm two hours southwest of Toronto.

He has been supported since then by the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance For Change, which helped him file a complaint with the provincial labor board, seeking 40,000 Canadian dollars from Scotlynn for lost wages and suffering. He contends that he was fired for asserting publicly that the company had a role in Mr. Chaparro’s death.

The farm’s owner, Scott Biddle, said his family had hired farm workers from Mexico for more than 30 years and never fired a single one. He said Mr. Flores was one of three workers who asked to be returned to Mexico after the outbreak began.

Mr. Biddle said his farm had strictly followed the district’s coronavirus regulations, putting almost all the workers up in hotel rooms for two rounds of quarantine. He called Mr. Chaparro’s death an unfortunate reflection of the disease’s vagaries, not of systemic failures.

“Every regulation was followed that needed to be,” he said, standing in a parking lot behind his office. “At the end of the day, these gentlemen are living in close contact, they work in close contact, they are frontline workers providing food.”

He invited a New York Times reporter to speak to three of his employees, one of whom had worked for him for 32 years.

Two confirmed that Mr. Chaparro had lain sick in bed for a week. They said that four other workers in the bunkhouse had also had fevers and that one coughed so much, they thought he had pneumonia.

“All of us were 100 percent convinced it was just the change in climate,” said Daniel Hernandez Vargas, a roommate of Mr. Chaparro’s who was working at the farm this spring for the first time.

Workers in another bunkhouse, who were unsure where to turn when one of them became seriously ill, reached out to the assistant to an anthropology professor, whom they had met during a previous growing season. With the help of the two academics nearly 2,000 miles away, at Okanagan College in British Columbia, an ambulance was called.

“It had gotten to the point, one of their co-workers was so ill, he was slipping in and out of consciousness,” said the professor, Amy Cohen, who is an advocate for migrant workers.

Mr. Biddle said he believed a foreman had called the ambulance, but wasn’t sure of the details.

“If anyone showed any symptoms of being ill, they were always taken to the hospital,” he said.

Canada needs to walk the talk on migrant rights

COVID-19 has exposed a number of the long-standing issues, particularly with respect to agriculture workers:

If you drive around the farming communities of Southern Ontario, you’ll see workers in the fields toiling under the hot sun. Their exhausting work puts food on Canadian tables. It also puts food on tables in Mexico, Jamaica and across the Caribbean. These front line workers ensure we don’t go hungry, particularly during the pandemic; they are critical to our food security.

Almost all migrant workers arriving in Canada were tested and confirmed to be free of COVID-19. Through no fault of their own, hundreds have contracted the virus through community transmission after they arrived, and three have died. The virus spread quickly because of their cramped living quarters and inadequate working areas.

Canada has been a leader in establishing international standards on migration, but our country’s treatment of migrant workers runs counter to its international commitments and threatens to damage its global reputation.

In 2018, Canada endorsed the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration at the United Nations. The Global Compact is a framework of principles, objectives and actions to strengthen migration standards and protect the rights of migrants. It applies to both sending and receiving countries, and by endorsing it, Canada made a commitment to implementing those standards.

Over two years of negotiations, Canada was recognized as a leader by the UN. Canada identified and proposed concrete solutions to global migration challenges. It worked closely with civil society organizations and built partnerships that crossed the world. Canada was regularly asked by the Global Compact organizers to mediate with countries that were backpedalling on migration issues and to assist in garnering international commitment for the compact’s implementation.

Canada’s accomplishments are doubly impressive given the rise of populist movements around the world. In the U.K., the Brexit side won in part because of a campaign against migration, and in the United States, President Donald Trump ran on an anti-migration platform, subsequently pulling out of the Global Compact. Globally, anti-migrant sentiment has been growing. Even in Canada, a misinformation campaign claimed the compact would impinge on sovereignty and encourage mass migration.

Now COVID-19 has put a spotlight on Canada’s own policies. The outbreaks among farm workers have exposed the pre-existing weaknesses in how we treat these migrants.

For decades, Canada’s migrant worker programs have been plagued with vulnerabilities to abuse, exploitation, workplace injuries and deplorable living conditions. This vulnerability is particularly true for those on work permits tied to only one employer. Migrant workers risk losing their jobs and livelihoods if they raise complaints.

Implementing the Global Compact can help Canada do better.

The compact’s underlying, non-negotiable principle is respect for human rights, including labour rights. It also promotes partnerships among governments, employers and migrant worker organizations. It stresses that policies should “not create, exacerbate or unintentionally increase vulnerabilities.” Following the premise of the compact means that including migrant workers as partners is an important first step. For example, working directly with migrants early in the pandemic to understand why they feared COVID-19 tests could have reduced the number of outbreaks.

In adopting the compact, states committed “to adapt options and pathways for regular migration in a manner that facilitates labour mobility and decent work.” In order to do so, one action outlined in the compact is to provide “flexible, convertible and non-discriminatory visa and permit options.” In line with the compact, Canada’s migrant worker programs should move from providing migrants with employer-specific visas to open or occupation-specific visas or even permanent residency.

Not tying workers to one employer reduces the risk of exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, not fearing reprisals, migrants may more often report violations and access services, thus recognizing their rights. Canada moved toward open visas with last year’s regulatory change allowing migrant workers at risk of workplace abuse to apply for an open visa, usually for one year. However, the onus is still on the migrant worker in a vulnerable situation.

Migration, and specifically the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers, is a global story as much as it is a national one. What we do at home affects how we are seen elsewhere. Recently, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne noted that Canada would “continue to play a leadership role and continue to defend and promote our values and principles around the world.” If Canada is committed to a global leadership role, it must improve its own standards before advocating to others the importance of principles and values.

By truly improving migration standards at home and acting on the international commitments it has made to protect the most vulnerable, Canada will build healthier communities and stronger economies – at home and abroad.


Quebec farms facing lost profits and rotting harvests due to migrant worker shortage

A further reminder of our dependence of foreign seasonal agriculture workers:

Nineteen-year-old Florence Lachapelle was among hundreds of Quebecers who tried their hand at planting seeds and harvesting produce this summer, replacing migrant workers who were unable to leave their countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while Lachapelle spent long days working the fields on Francois D’Aoust’s farm in Havelock, Que., too few other Quebecers took up the call to help the province’s struggling agricultural industry.

Despite a recruiting drive by the provincial government in April, the lack of labour this season has forced farmers to cut production or leave food rotting in the fields.

Unfortunately for Lachapelle, she fell ill with mononucleosis after two months and returned home to Montreal. She said the work was very demanding with so few migrant workers available.

“They’re professionals and we’re simply not,” Lachapelle said in a recent interview.

D’Aoust said he hired a handful of people to work alongside Lachapelle, who were out of work in other sectors such as communications, film and the restaurant industry. But once their opportunities returned, he said, they left for their better-paying jobs.

“Not a lot of people are used to (physical) work all day,” D’Aoust said in a recent interview. “It’s just not the kind of work that we do. It’s rare that people are in shape and can (work) all day in the field.

“People that are farmers, themselves, in their country, surely they are at an advantage.”

D’Aoust and his wife, Melina Plante, have hired the same four Guatemalan seasonal workers year after year. But this year the farmhands were stuck at home at the beginning of Quebec’s farming season due to travel restrictions their country imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

He said it takes inexperienced Quebecers up to three times as long to do farm work compared to a migrant worker. That meant he had to pay locals to do less work, eating into his profits.

D’Aoust slashed production at his farm, Les Bontes de la Vallee, by 60 per cent this year because he and his wife figured they would only have migrant workers later in the harvest season.

Two Guatemalan workers eventually made it on D’Aoust and Plante’s farm — but the financial damage to the business was done. “What we hope is to pass through this difficult period without too much loss and start again next year,” he said. “We just want to stay alive.”

For Michel Ricard, who owns 60 hectares of farmland in Saint-Alexis-de-Montcalm, about 60 kilometres north of Montreal, he said he’s going to lose a lot money and food this year because migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala haven’t been able to arrive.

By the end of August, Ricard said he expects to lose approximately $100,000 dollars worth of cucumbers because he has no one to pick them.

Experienced foreign workers are “essential for the future, for me, and for the majority of growers of vegetables,” he said in a recent interview.

“The people from Guatemala are able to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s not a problem. Sometimes I need to stop them because they want to continue, but sometimes I say ‘that’s enough for today.'”

Local workers haven’t been much help to him, he said. Ricard had his daughter post a message on Facebook to reach out to prospective farmhands, but he said only eight came through for him.

“It was impossible,” Ricard said.

The Union des producteurs agricoles, which represents about 42,000 Quebec farmers, says there are close to 2,000 fewer migrant workers on Quebec farms than usual. Despite the UPA’s efforts to lure Quebec workers through a recruiting drive, just under 1,400 were assigned to Quebec farms this year.

“It didn’t replace, really, the foreign workers,” UPA President Marcel Groleau said in a recent interview. “It helped on some issues … but those workers are not trained and can’t really replace the foreign workers that are trained and have experience on farms.”

Farmers such as D’Aoust and Ricard say migrant farmhands are willing to work longer hours, even for minimal pay.

Groleau said the federal government’s emergency response benefit, which offers up to $2,000 a month to many people who have lost jobs, has encouraged Quebecers to stay away from the gruelling field work.

“When you can get two thousand dollars a month sitting at home,” Groleau said, “it’s not really interesting to go on a farm and work a little bit for minimum wage.”

Source: Quebec farms facing lost profits and rotting harvests due to migrant worker shortage

Ottawa offers cash, more promises of reform for migrant workers in the agriculture industry

While the changes never go far enough for the activists, nevertheless the funding and related initiatives should result in improvement:

Ottawa will spend $58.6-million in efforts to improve the health and safety of temporary foreign workers in the agriculture industry, amid criticism that the government has not done enough to protect migrant farm workers.

The added funding is aimed at increasing inspections and improving employee housing. The government also said it will consult with provinces, employers, workers and foreign partner countries in the coming months to develop a “co-ordinated national approach” – mandatory requirements on employer-provided accommodations to ensure better living conditions for workers.

Advocates, medical experts and workers have long warned that poor living and working conditions are threatening workers’ health and safety – with these risks only heightened with the pandemic. More than 1,300 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ontario alone, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units, and three have died – one of whom was just 24.

A Globe investigation into the outbreaks in June revealed the unsafe conditions experienced by some farm workers. Interviews, photos and videos showed crowded bedrooms, broken toilets, cockroaches and bed-bug infestations. Workers cited a lack of access to PPE and pressure to keep working, even when suffering with symptoms of COVID-19.

And while the federal government is ultimately in charge of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, The Globe’s subsequent reporting found a lapse concerning in-person inspections and little enforcement of the rules at the height of the pandemic meant to protect workers.

“We look at the tragedies that have hit the temporary foreign workers’ community with deep sorrow. This is something that is on Canadians,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday, adding that there are “lots of changes that we need to make.”

In an interview with The Globe in June, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the federal government was planning an overhaul of the TFW program. On Friday, she said there are still “reported cases of inappropriate behaviour and unsafe working conditions.”

Workers, health professionals and rights groups said the measures still fall short, and don’t address systemic problems embedded in the structure of the program, where a precarious work status leaves workers unable to protect their rights for fear of being fired and deported.

Gabriel Flores, a farm worker in Ontario who tested positive for COVID-19 in May, said in an interview Friday that workers need “permanent residency, because we need to be able to defend ourselves and defend our rights and … be able to do something for our living and working conditions so that we can be healthy, be safe and work in decent conditions.”

Workers need a “comprehensive” solution now, he said, adding that more new programs and money won’t make a difference to workers if they don’t have the power to access them.

New measures announced Friday include $35-million for infrastructure improvements to living quarters, which also cover temporary emergency housing along with PPE and sanitary stations.

The government will also contribute $16-million to improve responses to allegations of employer non-compliance and strengthen inspections; the government will add “up to” 3,000 more inspections, which could potentially double the number of inspections this year. However, it didn’t say how many of these will be in person, or unannounced. And $6-million is slated for outreach to workers through migrant-worker support groups.

Despite some positive steps, such as acknowledging the need for pro-active enforcement of workplace and housing standards, “the changes announced today do not go nearly far enough,” said a statement by the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group.

Workers’ visas are still tied to their employers, which causes barriers in accessing safe working conditions, it said. “We encourage the federal government to address vulnerabilities workers face that arise from the conditions of their employment, specifically by instituting permanent residency on arrival and ending tied work permits.”

In B.C. Natalie Drolet, staff lawyer and executive director of the Migrant Workers Centre, said the government’s response is “too little, too late and is only a Band-Aid solution” that fails to address systemic problems such as their precarious work status.

In Ontario, Santiago Escobar, national representative at United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said housing must be improved “as soon as possible,” and for these measures to work, migrant farm workers need stronger labour rights, so they can join a union, have collective agreements and better labour mobility.


Ottawa didn’t enforce rules for employers of migrant farm workers during pandemic

Appears to be a significant program implementation fail, particularly with respect to Ontario in contrast to British Columbia:

The federal government allowed some employers of migrant farm workers to submit three-year-old housing inspection reports in order to secure labour during the pandemic, instead of requiring up-to-date evidence of compliance with the temporary foreign worker program.

As well, for a six-week period at the outset of COVID-19, the government stopped conducting housing inspections under the TFW program altogether. When the audits resumed, they were done remotely.

While Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has received 32 COVID-19-related complaints regarding the program in the agri-food sector since March, not a single farm has so far been found in violation of several key pandemic-related rules. For example, employer-provided accommodations must allow workers to keep a distance of two metres, and employees must be paid for their mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Canada.

The federal government is ultimately in charge of the TFW program. It has the power to conduct pro-active inspections of accommodations, which can include bunkhouses, trailers and sheds. The provinces and local public-health units also have a role to play in oversight, creating a jurisdictional quagmire that has proved detrimental to the well-being of some temporary foreign workers.

In Ontario alone, more than 1,000 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units. Health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the workers arrived in Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. Three men from Mexico have died.

A Globe investigation into the outbreaks published last month exposed the unsafe conditions endured by some migrant workers. Interviews, photos and videos portrayed overcrowded accommodations, broken toilets and cockroach and bed-bug infestations. As well, sheets and cardboard were used as dividers between bunk beds. Workers also recounted not being fully paid for their initial quarantine.

Federal guidance for employers of temporary foreign workers, updated in April, said that if an agri-food operation can’t submit a valid housing inspection report owing to COVID-19, “they must try to provide a satisfactory” report within the previous three years. The employer must later provide proof of compliance before the end of the permit term.

And even if an employer can’t produce a report from the previous three years, the company can still be approved to receive temporary foreign workers “if photos of the accommodation are provided and the employer agrees to submit an updated [report] to ESDC within the duration of the work permit.”

The department said in an e-mail that it would be rare for an employer to submit a three-year-old housing inspection report. In prepandemic times, employers had to provide, on an annual basis, a satisfactory report no older than eight months if they wanted to hire temporary foreign workers. This means that if a business employed migrant workers last year, for example, it would have had a recent report that it could submit.

In an interview with The Globe last month, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough acknowledged shortcomings in the TFW program and said Ottawa will overhaul it. Ms. Qualtrough said “nothing is off the table,” including changes to the enforcement regime. She also said that the government may create national housing standards that would have to be met for employers to qualify for the program.

Santiago Escobar, a co-ordinator with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, said the group has long sought improvements to what he described as “so-called inspections.” The alliance operates under the United Food and Commercial Workers union and represents migrant employees. “[The oversight regime] is not doing enough,” he said. “All inspections must be done in person, before workers arrive, and again once they’ve moved in.”

Over the past few months, Mr. Escobar said, the alliance has helped process dozens of applications for federal open work permits. This type of authorization, launched last year for vulnerable migrant workers, allows foreign nationals to leave abusive employers and work elsewhere for up to one year. Mr. Escobar said many of the applications included pandemic-related concerns. All of the submissions were approved.

And yet no employers have faced penalties for breaches of federal COVID-19-related rules. The employment department noted, however, that approximately 11 per cent of employers have required “some correction to minor issues” before being deemed compliant.

Of the 32 COVID-19-related complaints regarding the TFW program, the department has launched 11 inspections. Three are complete, with the employer found compliant in all areas. The rest of the complaints are under review. The federal government has the authority to penalize employers found to be non-compliant, including through a fine of up to $1-million and a ban on accessing labour through the program.

From mid-March to the end of April, Ottawa halted its housing inspections; ESDC said this was done to protect the health and safety of migrant workers, employers and government staff. When the inspections resumed, they were done remotely.

York University professor Leah Vosko, a Canada research chair whose work focuses on enforcement of employment standards and the precarious immigration status of migrant workers, said remote inspections are problematic. They don’t always accurately establish whether employers are abiding by the rules, she said, and information can be easily fabricated and manipulated.

In addition to more in-person audits, Prof. Vosko said Ottawa should increase unannounced inspections. “[A worker] being seen as a ‘troublemaker’ can jeopardize current and future employment contracts and lead to repatriation,” she said in an e-mail. “Proactive inspections are therefore needed to address the well-documented exploitative and unsafe conditions migrant farm workers labour under.”

One migrant farm worker told The Globe that when employers are given advance notice of an inspection, they have time to make conditions appear better than they are. “They’re prepared for the inspection, and usually what they do is show the good lunch room or the part of the facilities that are in good shape,” the worker said. The Globe is not identifying the worker because of concerns about future employment.

Prof. Vosko said Ottawa must create a national housing standard for temporary foreign workers. She pointed to a 2018 federally commissioned study on employer-provided accommodations that found a lack of uniformity in housing conditions and oversight.

“Consequently, prior to the pandemic, there were no concrete federal directives around housing capacities, bed size, number of windows and doors, privacy measures, food preparation and storage, [and] sanitation facilities,” she said.

At the provincial level, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly cited Ministry of Labour inspections and compliance orders as evidence that his government is taking action to protect migrant farm workers. But ministry inspections cover workplaces, not housing. The ministry said in an e-mail that it conducted 142 field visits in the agri-food sector related to COVID-19 between mid-March and early June. The inspections resulted in 34 COVID-19-related orders to improve conditions.

Scotlynn Group’s farm in Vittoria has been the subject of two formal COVID-19-related complaints to the Ministry of Labour. In May, there was a complaint with regard to “lack of COVID-19 measures,” and in June, there was a second one regarding “quarantine requirements,” according to ministry records provided to The Globe.

Investigations into the complaints are continuing; neither has so far resulted in a compliance order. The ministry is also investigating the June 21 death of Juan Lopez Chaparro, a 55-year-old Scotlynn worker from Mexico who had been admitted to hospital with COVID-19. The ministry declined to comment on the continuing fatality investigation.

Mr. Lopez Chaparro was one of 216 migrant workers at the Scotlynn farm; almost all of them have tested positive for the virus. Without a work force to speak of, the farm abandoned its asparagus harvest in early June.

The president and chief executive of Scotlynn Group – a North American transportation logistics and farming company with one of the largest vegetable operations in Ontario – told The Globe last week that all of the Vittoria workers have since tested negative and have been cleared to return to work. Scott Biddle said the Ministry of Labour told him they would likely be on site for two days to investigate Mr. Lopez Chaparro’s death, but ended up staying for two hours.

Mr. Biddle said officials interviewed him about the farm’s health and safety measures, including as it relates to accommodations for the initial mandatory quarantine. He said he rented hotel rooms for nearly 200 workers; 21 employees were isolated across seven bunkhouses, in line with a public-health occupancy directive that limited the number of workers per bunkhouse to three.

After four pro-active Ministry of Labour inspections and follow-up visits between January of 2010 and June of 2020, Scotlynn’s farming operation has been issued 13 compliance orders, according to ministry records. The orders require, among other measures, that the company prepare a policy for harassment and “assess the risks of workplace violence that may arise from the nature of the workplace, the type of work or the conditions of work.”

In five instances, the compliance order says vaguely, “the employer shall take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”

Three Scotlynn workers were among those interviewed for The Globe’s recent investigation. The men described overrun living conditions; ill workers living with healthy ones; and no PPE to guard against the virus.

Mr. Biddle said the two formal COVID-19-related complaints submitted to the Ministry of Labour are baseless and were brought by one “rogue” employee. “Every company has had complaints, but we’ve never had a fine,” he said. “We take every precautionary measure possible. We always go above and beyond.”


A lesson learned early: How B.C. has avoided major COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers

British Columbia seems to have gotten virtually everything right compared to the other larger provinces:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to grapple last week with the treatment of migrant farm workers after hundreds of agricultural labourers, mostly in Ontario, tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the Mexican government to suspend the annual exodus of its workers to Canadian farms.

But planeloads of temporary foreign workers from Mexico are still expected to arrive in British Columbia, because of a unique program the province implemented in April designed to avert the kind of outbreaks Mr. Trudeau now promises to address in other provinces.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail has shown that the living and working conditions of some of the country’s most vulnerable workers allowed the pandemic to spread.

As Mr. Trudeau promises to find ways to do better by the migrant workers who are essential to Canada’s food system, he could look to B.C. for at least part of the answer.

British Columbia, like Ontario and Quebec, relies heavily on temporary foreign workers for farm labour.

The difference is that B.C. responded to a single COVID-19 outbreak at a plant nursery early in March with a plan designed to prevent a repeat. The cost of the program is not known yet, but it is expected to be tens of millions of dollars.

Since April 13, the B.C. government has organized and paid for quarantine services for migrant workers who arrive in B.C. to take seasonal farm jobs. The employers must pay wages during this time. So far, 2,800 people have been housed in Vancouver-area hotels, where they are provided meals, health care and other supports during their two week isolation. Of those, 23 have tested positive for COVID-19 while in quarantine.

Because of the pandemic, new arrivals to Canada are legally required to self-isolate for two weeks. But housing on the farms is typically crowded, with shared kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

Providing these services is a tacit admission that those operations relying on migrant workers cannot effectively provide quarantine in their housing.

David Geen, owner of Jealous Fruits, a cherry producer in B.C.‘s Okanagan Valley, said he has invested millions of dollars in housing for the migrant workers who make up the majority of his workforce at harvest time. But even with that, he said, he could not imagine how to safely provide quarantine facilities.

“We were seriously contemplating sitting out the year. We could not figure out how to properly do this,” Mr. Geen said in an interview. “We’re farmers, we’re not epidemiologists.”

His cherry farms and packing facility employ 150 local and 500 migrant workers at peak times. “We have spread people out in the dorms, and in the fields, but if you have an infected person arrive in your dorms, it’s difficult to keep [the virus] out.”

So far this year, he has 155 temporary foreign workers on site, and another 130 are in quarantine. He expects another group later in June, and still more in early July. Even after their quarantine, the farm provides the workers with groceries and amenities so that they can remain isolated while working.

There have been no reports of COVID-19 cases on B.C. farms since the quarantine housing program began. Mr. Geen said B.C. deserves credit for that success, but he believes Ottawa should have stepped up to ensure farmworkers and farms across the country were similarly protected.

“I feel ill reading about the tragic situation in Ontario,” he said.

Still, the living and working conditions for migrant workers remain an ugly aspect of food production in Canada, including in B.C. The fact that many farms cannot recruit local workers, even as unemployment spikes due to the pandemic, is telling.

Weeks before B.C. unveiled its quarantine plan, the Dignidad Migrante Society, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that provides services, support, representation and assistance to migrant workers, called attention to those working conditions.

Raul Gabica, a former farm worker who is now a Canadian citizen, said B.C.‘s response has been a very good step. “But the workers are still in overcrowded housing, with no space for social distancing.”

Typical accommodations on B.C. farms provide one bathroom and one kitchen for every 10 workers, he said, with two or three people in each bedroom. “The housing standards have to change,” he said.

The pandemic has exposed that putting cheap food on the table comes at a high price for some.

Source:    A lesson learned early: How B.C. has avoided major COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers    

Essential but expendable: How Canada failed migrant farm workers

Good investigative reporting on the policy and enforcement failures after the quarantine period:

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the annual flow of farm labour into Canada hung in the balance.

Farmers feared that border closings and grounded planes would prevent agricultural workers, coming from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, from reaching their fields and greenhouses in time for the seeding season. Knowing this, Ottawa allowed entry of temporary foreign workers critical to the food system.

Conditions – including a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival – were put in place to protect Canadians. But advocates and health officials say not enough was done to protect the workers themselves.

In interviews, farm workers detailed the myriad reasons that COVID-19 has infiltrated farms with such success: a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), an information vacuum and pressure to work, despite symptoms. In one instance, a feverish worker developed chest pains and a nosebleed that dripped on the vegetables he tended; he said his supervisors refused to take him home until the shift was over. Photos, videos and interviews portrayed overrun bunkhouses with broken toilets and stoves, cockroach and bed-bug infestations, and holes in the ceiling.

Rules were rolled out, but they weren’t adequately enforced and failed to consider what life on a farm is actually like for a migrant worker. Ottawa requires that farms, which generally provide housing under the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, ensure that accommodations allow physical distancing during the initial quarantine period.

But what happened after those 14 days was a massive blind spot. After isolating, workers often move into the bunkhouses, where they share bathrooms and kitchens and climb atop one another to get into bed. As former migrant worker Gabriel Allahdua put it, conditions in farm accommodations are a “recipe for COVID-19 to spread like wildfire.”

In Ontario alone, more than 600 foreign farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail count; health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the workers came to Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have also recorded outbreaks among migrant agri-food workers.

The situation is most dire in Southwestern Ontario, home to the continent’s highest concentration of greenhouses. Ontario’s largest outbreak is at Scotlynn Group, where at least 167 of 216 migrant workers have tested positive. Mexico has become so concerned by the outbreaks that Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho told The Globe that his country has “put a pause” on sending more workers – 5,000 more are still due to make the trip – until Canadian officials ramp up monitoring of health and safety rules, and ensure workers are paid while in isolation.

Two of Mr. Gomez Camacho’s countrymen have already died. Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, left their loved ones in Mexico to earn a better living. Their families are now planning the young men’s funerals. Mr. Eugenio Romero and Mr. Munoz Santos died – on May 30 and June 5, respectively – after testing positive for COVID-19. Their final days were spent mostly in hotel rooms, mostly alone.

“For a 24-year-old to die of this is beyond tragic,” said David Musyj, president and chief executive of Windsor Regional Hospital, where Mr. Munoz Santos died. “It should not happen. Just because he was from Mexico, I don’t give a damn. He was my son’s age. He was in Canada. And we should be taking care of him.” Mr. Munoz Santos is one of the youngest people in Canada to die from COVID-19-related causes. Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner is investigating both deaths and will decide whether to launch the province’s first inquest into a migrant worker fatality.

The federal government has the power to conduct pro-active inspections of farm accommodations, but during a six-week period at the height of the pandemic, these audits stopped. They are now being done virtually. The provinces are responsible for occupational health and safety, but in Ontario at least, the Ministry of Labour does not inspect employer-provided accommodations. Local public-health units in the province typically inspect farm bunkhouses once or twice a year, but this is done before workers arrive; an empty space looks markedly different from one with dozens of occupants.

In Canada, advocates and community health care workers for months warned federal and provincial politicians, as well as local public-health officials, that migrant workers were at a heightened risk. In letters, e-mails and conference calls, they asked for a number of measures, including increased funding for public-health units to ensure adequate housing inspections and limits on the number of people using each bathroom in bunkhouses. While some action was taken, many people say help came too little, too late. And advocates worry that unless enforcement and public-health outreach kick into high gear, there are lives and livelihoods at stake, along with the potential for disruption to the food system.

To understand what went so wrong, The Globe interviewed seven migrant workers across four farm operations, at times through a translator, as well as employers, advocates, academics, hospital executives, former migrant workers, doctors, lawyers and industry associations. The Globe reviewed four immigration files detailing allegations of employers who did little or nothing to protect workers. Migrant workers’ identities are being concealed because of privacy concerns and fears of reprisals.

The investigation revealed that problems in an already broken system have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The experiences of workers varied, with some describing decent housing and respectful bosses who have worked hard to keep them healthy. Others spoke of racism and recounted threats of termination or deportation if they didn’t meet stringent productivity quotas.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), said there is a massive disconnect at play. “Migrant workers,” he said, “have been treated as expendable and exploitable – and essential, all at the same time.”


The agriculture sector employs approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers each year, with upward of 10,000 of them in Windsor-Essex county, which includes Leamington. Under the TFW program, foreign nationals are allowed to work for a particular employer for a set amount of time. Some stay for several months, others are here year-round. There are also foreigners who work in the country unauthorized; according to some estimates, Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants.

Source: Investigation: Essential but expendable: How Canada failed migrant farm workers