June 22, 2020 By Fruit and Vegetable
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) released a report on June 8 that detailed complaints made on behalf of over a thousand migrant workers. Warnings, according to MWAC, that were unheeded by the federal and provincial authorities and consulates in advance of the recent COVID-19 outbreaks that have led to at least three worker deaths.
“Most of the workers we spoke to knew they would fall sick because of their living and working conditions but could not speak up because doing so means termination, homelessness, loss of income, deportation and not being able to come back in the future,” says report co-author and MWAC campaigns coordinator, Karen Cocq. “To stop this grave crisis from worsening, it is necessary that all migrants be given permanent resident status immediately.”
The report situates these abuses in the decades long history of unheeded warnings made by migrant workers about Canada’s temporary immigration and labour laws.
“The federal government has given nearly a billion dollars to agri-food businesses, while migrants who actually grow the food are falling sick and dying,” says Sonia Aviles, an MWAC organizer who staffs one of the hotlines where the complaints were made. “We need the federal and provincial government to go in and see what’s going on, and fix things to ensure workers are protected before more people die – that means snap inspections, social distancing measures and permanent resident status.”
Migrant workers accounted for 41.6 per cent of all agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent of the agricultural workers in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in 2017.
“Employers are using COVID-19 to lock migrant workers up, refusing to let them leave even to get groceries or send remittances home, while threatening them – specifically Black men – with increased policing. This is racism and it is anti-Black racism,” says Kit Andres, an MWAC organizer who staffs the English hotline on which complaints were received. “Workers know that what they are facing is wrong, and they need permanent resident status so they can assert their rights.”
Since COVID-19 started, over 6,000 people have signed a petition calling for status, and the Migrant Rights Network has sent several letters regarding migrants to the federal government that have also been ignored.
On June 19, 2020, the Canadian federal government announced it would be overhauling its temporary foreign worker program in response to COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths. The review was first reported by The Globe and Mail, which outlined that the government will be looking to increasing surprise inspections of working and living conditions and also considering establishing a national standard on living conditions.
In addition to the MWAC report, The Globe and Mail also conducted an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreaks using data from the Employment and Social Development Canada form used by inspectors. Their investigation recorded that “a sea of factors” made on-farm workers vulnerable to the virus, including overcrowded accommodations; supervisors putting pressure on ill labourers to keep working; no sick days; and a lack of personal protective equipment.
Pablo Godoy, a liaison for Mexico with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, said he was pleased with the announcement but is eager to see what’s next. For Godoy, better regulations and enforcement “are only half the battle,” adding that an independent oversight body is necessary as a outlet for workers to go to without fear of reprisal from employers.
Highlights from the report
MWAC highlighted eight key trends in their report, Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada:
- Lack of permanent resident status makes it impossible for workers to assert their rights.
- Employers are not taking COVID-19 precautions.
The report quotes one worker that said, “Right now they got 10 [COVID-19] cases on the compound. They have the guys going to get tested and have them still coming to work and working with everybody the same way. The more they get tests, the more cases they find and they have the guys all working together.”
- Wage theft is commonplace.
MWAC confirmed reports of $57,369.46 stolen from workers in the form of deductions and unpaid wages.
- Border closures resulted in loss of income, and workers were coerced to travel to Canada because no income supports were available.
MWAC accounted for 155 complaints about delays and difficulties faced by workers trying to come to Canada to start work.
- Workers could not socially distance and did not receive decent food, income or health information during quarantine.
MWAC received complaints from 316 workers who were either not paid for the quarantine period at all, had their quarantine incomes clawed back, or were paid less than the required 30 hours per week. In addition, 539 workers cited inadequate access to food. Another 160 complaints were from migrants not able to maintain social distancing.
- Housing conditions worsened dramatically after quarantine and greater limits have been placed on worker mobility.
MWAC received 109 complaints about housing conditions not specific to or after quarantine. Such complaints included lack of essential supplies, cleanliness, cramped quarters, and the presence of animals and pests.
- Intimidation, surveillance, threats and racism have greatly increased.
In all, 209 migrant workers reported increased intimidation, surveillance and threats from employers often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols to MWAC. Critically, the organization noted, while complaints among Spanish-speaking and English-speaking workers are largely consistent, complaints about threats were disproportionately higher for Caribbean workers who are largely Black men (19.7 per cent of Caribbean workers, as compared to 12.8 per cent of Spanish-speaking workers). The report states that racism, and specifically anti-Black racism, underpins workers’ experiences.
- Work has intensified greatly during COVID-19.
MWAC stated that 128 workers reported working for weeks without a day off, being forced to work long hours, and suffering increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace of work.
Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, in a follow-up interview with The Record after the report was released, said farmers are doing everything they can to keep their workers safe. “We feel we are good employers. If there is an individual who is not complying with the laws of the land, we don’t support them, but they are few and far between,” George told The Record.
At the end of the MWAC report, the organization details their calls for action which include making COVID-19 quarantine requirements for employers available to workers with information on how they can assert their rights and make anonymous complaints. Other calls to action include a national housing standard, increased wages, income supports for workers impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks at their workplaces, and permanent resident status on arrival for workers.
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