Farmers, fish processors reject report on foreign workers' living conditions

Prince Edward Island farming and fishing industry groups are pushing back on a report issued this week that raised concerns about the treatment of temporary foreign workers on the Island.

'That’s not us at all … that is not a true story of how we treat our workers'

About 80 workers travel from Mexico to Canada each year to work for up to seven months on Dale Hickox's broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprout farm in Vernon River, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Prince Edward Island farming and fishing industry groups are pushing back on a report issued this week that raised concerns about the treatment of temporary foreign workers on the Island.

"We have a lot of hurdles that we have to cross before we are even allowed to even start the process," said Vernon River vegetable farmer Dale Hickox, who has 80 people from Mexico arriving to work for him this year.

The report, titled "Safe at Work, Unsafe at Home," outlined what researchers from the Cooper Institute and Dalhousie and St. Thomas universities were told when they interviewed 15 of the 1,700 migrant workers who travelled to P.E.I. last summer.

They were specifically looking at whether their living and working conditions were enough to protect the workers from COVID-19. 

Overcrowded housing conditions were reported by some of the workers, even though the need for social distancing was being emphasized by public health protocols. High rents were also reported for some workers living in substandard housing. 

Hickox said that might be true for some operations, but not for his. 

Farmer Dale Hickox stands outside a bunkhouse that houses some of the temporary foreign workers he relies on to plant, tend and harvest his vegetable crop in Vernon River, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Rules dictate the number of washrooms, kitchen and laundry facilities for the contingent of people housed, the province inspects the housing, and Hickox can charge workers no more than $2.35 a day in rent. Water quality must also be tested regularly. 

"We have guidelines instituted and followed by Health PEI, that have to do a yearly inspection on our homes, and if we don't do it, we can't even move forward to apply to have these workers come to help us out on our farms," he told CBC's Kerry Campbell on Friday as they walked through a bunkhouse that will be a temporary home for 30 workers. 

"The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture is concerned about the allegations levelled against the industry in the latest report on temporary foreign workers put out by the Cooper Institute," a statement from the federation said.

"Labour is one of the biggest and longest term challenges the agriculture industry has faced and temporary foreign workers have helped fill the gap in getting product in the ground at this time of year.  All farm operations take the requirements seriously because these workers are needed."

'I think it's comfortable.... I'm happy right here'

Some of his staff have been with this same employer for more than a decade.

Clementa Rubio is from Mexico City, and has been coming to P.E.I. for 12 seasons. He's the foreman of workers at Hickox's farm, and spends seven months a year on the Island.

"It's a really good opportunity for us," he said as several other workers sat nearby, speaking of being able to send money home to their families in Mexico where jobs paying the same amount of money are scarce. 

Clementa Rubio is the foreman of workers at Dale Hickox's vegetable farm in Vernon River, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"It's hard work here," he acknowledged. 

"It's going to be outside all the time," dealing with broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. 

"It's hard for us, for the boys, because we have to leave our family back [home]."

Yet Rubio said housing is not one of the things that makes life hard for the workers.

"We got plenty of room, whatever we need, and I think it's comfortable.... I'm happy right here. It's a really good farm." 

Different stream for seafood sector workers

Housing for farm workers is regulated and inspected, but that's not the case for temporary foreign workers arriving to fill vacancies in the seafood processing sector. 

The report released this week found that in one case, as many as 17 migrant workers were housed in a single-family dwelling on P.E.I. last year.

And it said some workers paid rent of up to $1,200 each for that kind of communal accommodation.

The P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association issued a statement calling this week's report on migrant worker living conditions on the Island 'inaccurate and misleading.' (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

After CBC News asked to talk with the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, the group replied with a written statement.

"We categorically disagree with the report's negative portrayal of the treatment of TFWs in our seafood processing plants," it said in part.

"Some statements in the report, which has multiple authors including the P.E.I. Cooper Institute, are inaccurate and misleading. We are very disappointed the authors of the report did not contact us for comment as we could have brought the inaccuracies in the report to their attention.

"P.E.I. seafood processors will review the report in detail and will be responding publicly, in the near future, to provide a more accurate and balanced viewpoint."

Islanders not there to fill jobs

Employers who use them say P.E.I.'s fishing and farming industries couldn't exist without migrant workers.

Every year Hickox advertises for six to eight weeks for workers who live on P.E.I., offering to pay them more than minimum wage. Few if any people apply. 

"Time is the most critical thing," he said. "I need to have a guaranteed workforce to plant and harvest my crop."

If there are migrant workers being treated unfairly on a P.E.I. farm, Hickox said, that's the exception to the rule.

"I was quite upset about it," he said of the report and coverage of it. "That's not us at all.

"There's always the odd bad apple, but for the majority of the farmers on Prince Edward Island, that is not a true story of how we treat our workers."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Kerry Campbell