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Migrant workers in Canada are facing unsafe living and working conditions amid a series of COVID-19 outbreaks on Ontario farms, according to an advocacy group.
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) on Monday released a report summarizing complaints made to its tip line between March 15 and May 15 by workers from Mexico and the Caribbean about racism, threats, surveillance, poor access to food, and dirty cramped bunkhouses, with 40 people in a dorm reportedly sharing one shower in one case.
“We are in the midst of a human rights catastrophe,” MWAC executive director Syed Hussan said on Monday.
The report comes after a series of recent outbreaks on Ontario farms that have seen hundreds of migrant workers reportedly test positive for COVID-19. Two migrant workers, identified as Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, both from Mexico, have died from the virus. At least two other migrant workers are in intensive care, MWAC said.
“The employer was not interested in our well-being, only in the work we do for him,” a farm worker from Mexico, identified as Edgar, said through a translator at an MWAC video news conference on Tuesday.
Employment and Workforce Development Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office on Monday said in a statement that there is “more to do” to protect migrant workers in Canada.
“The reported cases of inappropriate behaviours and unsafe working conditions are completely unacceptable,” the statement said, noting the government has already pledged $50 million to farmers to help with the costs of housing and paying workers for 30 hours a week during the mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in the country.
But MWAC said it has received complaints from workers who reported not receiving their full quarantine pay. Others reported not receiving enough food during that two-week period.
“Sixteen workers reported receiving only one loaf of bread and a carton of eggs to feed them all for two days,” MWAC said. “One group of nine workers called us about being placed in a house where dogs had been living, that smelled of dog urine and had not been cleaned prior to the workers’ arrival.
We would love to understand who is abusing the system
In another submitted complaint, a group of workers said they reported issues with their food to a federal government helpline. Government officials reportedly reached out to the employer, who threatened the staff about complaining again, MWAC said.
Qualtrough’s office did not respond to a question about the allegation.
Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Labour, said bad players in the industry “should be brought to justice,” but added she believed the “vast majority” of farmers were treating migrant workers with decency.
“We would love to understand who is abusing the system, if these allegations are true, because we rely on this system. All of Canada relies on this system,” she said. “It’s a very low water mark they’re setting. We all get painted by the same brush.”
The MWAC report said many migrant workers were afraid to speak about the conditions they faced, with some complaining that their employers threatened to fire them, which would result in them being deported and losing a season’s worth of wages.
MWAC said it received roughly 180 calls to its tip line between mid-March and mid-May on behalf of 1,162 workers, since some workers don’t have access to Canadian cell service or the internet.
“Many migrant workers report that employers are using COVID-19 to further clamp down on basic worker freedoms, breaking down support systems and social networks, and targeting outspoken workers by ensuring they remain confined to workplaces and bunkhouses,” the report said, adding that some complained of private security guards stationed outside their bunkhouses.
Others reported that their employer had threatened to report them to the police if they didn’t comply with instructions, MWAC said.
Workers reported increased racism from employers, local shops, and some community members who treat them as if they are 'disease carriers'
“Complaints about threats were disproportionately higher for Caribbean workers who are largely black men,” the report said. “Workers also reported increased racism from employers, local shops, and some community members who treat them as if they are ‘disease carriers’ — even in cases where workers arrived before COVID-19 hit.”
Industry and advocacy groups have said the recent farm outbreaks have been from local community spread, and not from incoming migrant workers.
Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), an organization that arranges travel for migrant workers coming to farms in Ontario and parts of Eastern Canada, said there is an “unbelievably stringent” process in place for employers seeking to bring labourers through the temporary foreign worker program.
The group arranged for travel for roughly 15,000 to 16,000 migrant farm workers this year, said Ken Forth, a broccoli farmer in Hamilton who serves as the president of FARMS. He said any employer looking for a permit to bring in workers needs to pass government inspection of the living quarters, and those inspections have continued through the pandemic.
“I had an integrity audit two hours ago,” he said on Monday, adding it was conducted virtually.
Forth said he sent photos to Service Canada, answered questions and arranged for interviews with some of his staff.
MWAC noted that current virtual inspections aren’t thorough enough and called for immediate action from the government “before more lives are lost,” adding the pandemic has only exacerbated decades-old issues facing many migrant migrant workers.
The organization is calling for a national housing standard, arguing it’s hard to ensure a consistent quality of living across the country with the current patchwork of regulations being overseen by local public health units.
MWAC is also calling for permanent residency status for all migrant labourers, which it said would allow them to refuse to work or live in unsafe conditions without fear of being sent back to their home countries. And it is urging snap inspections of any farm with a reported COVID-19 outbreak, with the affected farms shutting down until health authorities clear them to reopen.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020