A series of hard-hitting articles on migrant farm workers in Canada has shone a light on some realities that will make many Canadians uncomfortable.
The Globe and Mail series was undoubtedly a shock to many readers unaware migrant farm workers were even ‘a thing’ in Canada. It details conditions that will leave a pretty clear picture of why jobs in the sector aren’t attractive to Canadian workers.
The short list includes crowded and pest-filled accommodations, pressuring ill workers to keep working during a pandemic, lack of sick days, lack of information, threats of deportation and a lack of personal protective equipment.
The result of these failings — both systemic and individual — are visible in the grim statistics.
In Ontario alone, 600 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, in a population of approximately 20,000 workers in a normal year. That works out to just over 33 cases per 1,000 population. Those numbers could easily have been higher. The sector has fretted publicly that it didn’t get its usual complement of workers this year.
For purposes of comparison it’s important to note that all of Ontario, with a population of 14.57 million, has seen just over 33,000 cases to date. That’s 2.2 cases per 1,000 population.
Here in Manitoba, we’ve seen a cluster of COVID cases involving migrant farm workers, though thankfully no one has died.
For an industry that relies on ‘social licence’ to do business, this is a worrisome turn of events. When the general public has, rightly or wrongly, an image of bucolic farm life, being slapped in the face with this sort of hard reality will be even more disturbing to non-farmers. The implication, in their minds, is that they’ve been fooled, and nobody likes to feel the fool.
It’s also troubling because there were already signs that Canadians are growing weary of abuses of the TFW program. As early as 2016 one Globe and Mail poll showed 63 per cent of Canadians has some level of unease with the TFW program.
That’s a concern for a sector that depends so heavily on foreign labour. Without reforms to a system so fatally flawed, Canadians could well lose their appetites for this kind of farming.
Reforms do seem to be in the cards. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently reflected on the situation during his daily press briefing.
“We know that there are many issues – from living conditions, to the fact that they’re tied individually to particular companies or employers, to various challenges around labour standards – that require looking at,” he told reporters June 18.
“We could also look at pathways to citizenship that could give people more rights… We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect: Can we change the system to do better?”
For a country like Canada, that is trying to portray itself as a high-quality supplier of safe and sustainable food, some soul-searching is in order.
Domestic political pressure isn’t the only threat to the flow of necessary workers for Canadian farms. There’s also political pressure from the other end of the pipeline, in the nations sending these workers.
After two Mexican workers died of COVID-19 in recent weeks, the Mexican government said it wouldn’t be sending any more until it had some answers. Mexico’s ambassador to Canada, Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, said his government needs to know why it happened and what corrective action is needed. That puts in doubt the arrival of 5,000 more Mexican workers who were expected to come this year.
At least part of the problem seems to be that the Canadian government spent a lot of time thinking about how to protect Canadians from sick migrant workers — and almost no effort into looking at how to ensure the workers themselves remained safe.
Public health authorities say that virtually all the sick workers appear to have been infected here, suggesting Canada put the cart before the horse.
It’s always going to be difficult to prevent disease from spreading in crowded bunkhouses, however, which casts real doubt about the sustainability of this system.
True, other examples of similar working conditions exist. Manitoba Hydro, for example, has 2,400 people at a live-in work site at its Keeyask project, in northern Manitoba.
Or at least it did, until May 23, when the Crown corporation put the project on hold after a blockade by local communities concerned about COVID prevented a shift change.
If other industries have decided camp life won’t work anymore, agriculture is going to have to find its own solution to this challenge.