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Temporary foreign workers especially vulnerable during the pandemic

On April 1, the Migrant Rights Network, a group of organizations from across Canada working to promote conditions for foreign workers, wrote a letter to public officials urging them to implement guidelines to ensure the health and safety of vulnerable workers. “Failure to implement these changes will lead to devastating public health consequences…and a human rights catastrophe,” the letter states.  

The Migrant Rights Network sent several letters to federal and provincial authorities that outlined the concerns of vulnerable workers, according to a recent report from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC). None of the letters received replies. Since then, three workers on farms in Ontario—Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos and Juan López Chaparro—have died after contracting the virus.

Temporary foreign workers have been reporting mistreatment and low pay for years, but as COVID-19 shutdowns began, advocates knew that conditions would become even more treacherous. So far, there have been at least 17 outbreaks at farms across the country and at least 600 workers have tested positive.

Though we may not associate Canada’s workforce with foreign workers, they in fact make up around 40 per cent of agricultural workers in Ontario and nearly a third of agricultural workers in Quebec, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia, according to 2017 figures. Migrant workers are an important part of the Canadian economy, and have been essential to keeping our food supply chain functioning during the pandemic.

Despite this, they have not been adequately protected. Between mid-March and mid-May, MWAC received more than a thousand complaints on behalf of workers from across the country about loss of income, poor housing conditions, and intimidation from employers, among other issues. 

The MWAC report describes the ways that exploitative employers and poor government oversight have allowed migrant workers to fall through the cracks. After first arriving in Canada, new regulations required workers to remain quarantined for 14 days in the employer-provided housing in which they live while receiving the equivalent of 30-hours per week in pay. 

However, many workers complained of crowded living conditions, a lack of access to proper sanitation, and that the amount of food provided by employers was inadequate to feed all inhabitants. Hundreds of workers also reported that they were not paid according to government guidelines during their mandatory quarantine. Then, once work resumed, crowded conditions at work, combined with difficulty accessing health-care services, made workers even more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. 

But while workers feared getting sick, they also feared reprisals from their employers — placing them in a particularly precarious position. “Migrant farm workers have work permits that tie them to their employers — this means that workers who speak out or complain can easily be terminated, deported, and banned from returning to work in Canada in future,” the MWAC report states. “This makes it impossible, in practice, for workers to be able to complain about their working and living conditions.”

Perhaps the most widely-reported example of these inequities occurred at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta. The plant became the site of one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in North America with over 1,500 cases being linked to the plant, which included about 900 workers. 

Most workers at the plant are immigrants or temporary foreign workers whose status in Canada — like the migrant workers in Canada’s fields, vineyards, and greenhouses — is dependent on their employment. 

This precarity, combined with economic pressures, makes workers especially vulnerable to exploitative policies from their employer. A CBC investigation showed that Cargill plant workers were made to work in cramped and sometimes dangerous conditions, and that some were pressured to return to work even after contracting COVID-19. 

In fact, two weeks and a day after the death of Cargill employee Hiep Bui, who had worked at the plant for 23 years, the plant reopened and resumed production despite concerns from workers and union representatives who feared another outbreak unless working conditions were addressed. 

As news of the outbreak at Cargill spread, Fillipino workers, who make up about 70 per cent of the plant’s workers, reported being targeted online by residents who accused them of bringing the virus to Alberta. Some reported being turned away from banks and grocery stores because they worked at the plant.   

Fears about food supply disruption from outbreaks in Canada’s meatpacking plants and farms tend to focus on the effects on Canadian consumers and less on the workers who help ensure that the grocery stores themselves are stocked with food. And despite being deemed “essential workers,” low-income new immigrants and migrant workers are often treated as disposable and do not have the same access to services as others in Canada. 

Without putting strict protections in place, these workers will remain vulnerable to mistreatment from employers who push them to work in hazardous conditions. Said one seasonal worker from Jamaica featured in the MWAC report: “We’re treated like machines. We just want them to recognize that we’re still human.”