Advocacy group says migrant workers deserve better

COVID-19 has shown how vulnerable these employees can be, a new report says

COVID-19 has exacerbated the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers, says a report from Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC).

Sonia Aviles.
photo: Supplied

“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,” said Sonia Aviles, an MWAC organizer, in a June 8 news release.

“We need the federal and (Ontario) 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,” she said.

The report came shortly after the deaths of two young men related to COVID-19. Both were Mexican migrant workers working in Ontario. On June 10, The Star reported cases of the virus among temporary foreign workers in Ontario is approaching 500.

Rogelio Muñoz Santos, 24, is one of two temporary foreign workers to die from COVID-19 in Ontario, according to reports from CBC.
photo: GoFundMe

Earlier this month, 18 temporary foreign workers in Manitoba were placed in isolation after one of them fell ill with COVID-19. Four cases of the virus were linked to that business, which wasn’t named, according to a June 3 report from CBC.

The report from MWAC summarizes 180 complaints to the organization’s hotline. The complaints were made on behalf of 1,162 foreign workers, the report says. One of these reports was from Manitoba. The majority were from Ontario, which MWAC said is related to how the phone line has been used in the past.

The majority of these complaints focused on lack of permanent residence status “as a key factor in workers’ ability to: protect themselves against COVID-19; ask for decent housing; access health-care information; or assert their labour rights,” the report says.

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“For example, workers called us from (two large Ontario farms) weeks before the outbreaks to highlight lack of adequate health and safety protections, but insisted that they were unable to change the situation because of their employer’s control over their housing, their ability to stay in Canada, or their ability to return in the future.”

Workers reported lack of access to health-care services, particularly health cards, or not knowing who to contact for health information while they were prevented from leaving the farm. They reported poor housing conditions, inadequate access to food during the required 14-day quarantine upon arrival, and inability to maintain social distancing.

The report also alleges that nearly $60,000 in wages were stolen from workers in the form of deductions and unpaid wages. MWAC says it verified these allegations through payslips, contracts and receipts.

MWAC also reports that many workers would have preferred to remain at home as some came from communities relatively untouched by the coronavirus. However, because no income supports were available to them, they came to Canada despite fearing for their safety.

“The Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC) is deeply saddened by the deaths of two international farm workers due to COVID-19,” said Karl Oczkowski, manager of communications with CHC, in a statement sent to the Manitoba Co-operator on June 10.

CHC represents fruit and vegetable growers in Canada.

“We cannot respond directly to any reports or allegations that have not been independently verified by third parties,” he said.

Oczkowski said farmers are going to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of workers, including setting up partitions on farm equipment, paying for workers to isolate in hotels and building new bunk houses.

“All of these efforts represent significant monetary costs to growers,” said Oczkowski. “In many cases, these efforts are also having a significant impact on the ability to plant and harvest this year’s crops due to the need to deploy workers safely in a more restricted and controlled fashion.”

Housing facilities on every farm are inspected before that employer can receive approval to bring in temporary foreign workers, said Oczkowski.

“We are not aware of any farm business that has been found not to be in compliance with housing requirements in 2020.

“We advocate for complete adherence to all regulations and protocols across our sector, and consider any failure to strictly adhere to these regulations unacceptable,” he added.

In Leamington, Ontario, a COVID-19 assessment centre was opened to test workers for the virus, according to a report from CBC. It aims to test 500 to 600 workers a day.

In Manitoba, Workplace Safety and Health enforces occupational health and safety laws and inspects workplaces, including those that employ temporary foreign workers, a provincial spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

There is no required frequency for these inspections, the spokesperson said.

“With respect to COVID-19, Manitoba’s occupational safety and laws require employers to conduct a risk assessment and implement reasonable control measures to reduce risk to workers. Control measures may include implementing safe work procedures, administrative controls or the use of personal protective equipment as is reasonably practicable.”

About the author

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Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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