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Hotline became lifeline for migrant workers secretly reporting poor conditions on Canadian farms

Advocates for migrant farm workers in Canada say a culture of fear led temporary workers to secretly call a hotline to report poor conditions on their farms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agriculture associations say COVID-19 inspections and protocols are in place, but aren't perfect

Migrant farm workers pick fruit in Abbotsford, B.C., in September 2019. Staff at a hotline for migrant farm workers said it transformed into a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic as workers across Canada called to secretly report conditions on farms. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kit Andres' cellphone was known among migrant farm workers as a hotline for whatever they needed, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has transformed into a lifeline as workers across the country call in secrecy to report poor conditions on farms.

"They really don't know who we are, so to even just reach out and send us a WhatsApp message saying 'This is what's going on at my farm, please help,' was a huge risk for them," Andres, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told CBC News.

Migrant farm workers have also been among the hardest hit groups during the pandemic. The virus has infected close to 1,000 of them in Ontario, three of whom died. It has sparked calls for governing bodies to improve workers' conditions. 

Before the pandemic, hotline staff said calls were mainly about things like Employment Insurance and migrant workers rights in Canada. But as coronavirus took hold, Andres said they noticed an increase in calls about conditions on the farms.

She said it would take multiple calls for her to win a migrant worker's trust before they would tell her their real name and what farm they worked on. 

"Some of those conversations are still ongoing because of the level of fear on these farms. It's so real and deep, they don't feel safe even sharing a fake name with me."

Workers fear consequences of speaking out

She said the culture of fear comes from many of the 60,000 seasonal farm workers in Canada having their bosses also serve as their landlords. Many live where they work.

Andres said some of them are undocumented and almost all are temporary workers whose status is tied to a sole employer. If the worker has an issue with that employer, she said, it could affect whether they get hired in the future.

And she said the "fear and intimidation" was there long before the novel coronavirus emerged.

WATCH | Undocumented migrant workers fear deportation during COVID-19 pandemic:

Ontario has started onsite testing as a way to tackle the COVID-19 outbreaks on farms and in greenhouses in Windsor-Essex County. But the government's measures overlook approximately 2,000 undocumented migrant workers in the area, and fears of deportation prevent them from coming forward. 4:05

Andres focuses on English-speaking and Caribbean workers in Niagara, but has received calls from across Canada. 

She and a colleague, Sonia Aviles, told CBC Front Burner they heard about allegations of racism in the calls, as well as cramped, unhygienic conditions, sometimes with little to no food. Andres said she drove some supplies to farm workers herself to make sure they had basic groceries. 

She said she was also able to help some of the workers in Haldimand and Norfolk counties in southern Ontario at hot spots like the Scotlynn Group Farm, which saw one migrant worker die and roughly 200 others become infected. 

Scotlynn president and CEO Scott Biddle told Front Burner that the farm had taken "every precautionary measure" to prevent the coronavirus and "followed every protocol put in place." 

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), said the public is only getting one side of the story.

"If it was such a problem with what's being reported across the industry, why would [the seasonal worker program] be 60 years old and why would these people keep coming back over multiple generations?" he said.

He said the outbreaks on farms are no different than long-term care homes, with groups of people working in close proximity. Currie added that there are many inspections and protocols in place. Some of those were "virtual" inspections.

"What we know now is those protocols aren't COVID-19 proof," he said.

Workers walk on the property at Scotlynn Group Farm near Vittoria, Ont., on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. A coronavirus outbreak at the farm saw one migrant worker die and roughly 200 others become infected. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Permanent resident status is key, advocate says

Andres said fixing up specific farms isn't enough.

"The problem is not about individual employers. It's not about a few bad apples breaking the rules. It's that the rules themselves are not good enough," she said.

"The issue is there's not a national housing standard that every employer has to abide by. Wherever a worker is going to in Canada, they can't be assured wherever they end up, the housing will be clean, safe and dignified because they don't have a choice about what farm they get sent to."

Currie said the idea that migrant workers have no rights is "unfair."

"They have the same labour rights, the same rights to health care ... they are absolutely looked after the same way you and I are. They even pay into CPP so when they go home, they are able to collect a pension," he explained.

Migrant farm workers harvest corn in Abbotsford, B.C., in September 2019. The workers have been among the hardest hit groups during the pandemic, sparking calls to improve workers' conditions. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He also said not every farm owner is perfect and that the OFA and CFA try their best to provide the best working conditions for employees.

"Do we want to make things better? Absolutely ... doing a panic, rushed move to try and fix everything in one-fell swoop might lead to a whole other problem."

Andres argues that one of the most important solutions would be creating better access to obtaining permanent resident status, which would offer a safety net for workers who could face homelessness, unemployment or deportation for turning down work.

Currie said the government has been piloting a path to permanent resident status for workers in the agriculture setting and those results could lead to similar opportunities for others.

Andres said she hopes they act soon.

"Without having their permanent resident status here, they will never feel completely free to assert their rights and speak out ... they're sick of being in constant crisis."

About the Author

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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