Politics

In scathing report, auditor general says feds failed to protect foreign farm workers from the pandemic

The federal department charged with inspecting farms that hire temporary foreign workers failed to keep tabs on how well employers were protecting their staff during the pandemic, Canada's auditor general reported today.

Auditor general says federal inspectors ignored pandemic regulations for temporary foreign workers

A temporary foreign worker from Mexico plants strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The federal department charged with inspecting farms that hire temporary foreign workers failed to keep tabs on how well employers were protecting their staff during the pandemic, Canada's auditor general reported today.

Auditor General Karen Hogan said inspectors working for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) did not properly enforce new pandemic regulations designed to protect workers from COVID-19 — frequently skipping checks on whether employers offered drinking water, cleaning products, separate accommodations for infected workers and dedicated quarantine spaces for workers who were supposed to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Canada.

Foreign farm workers — who come to Canada on a seasonal basis to fill labour shortages in the agricultural sector — are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 because they often live in tight quarters in shared employer-provided accommodations.

There were large outbreaks on some farms in the early days of the pandemic. At least three foreign farm workers have died from COVID-19, the AG found.

To address the gaps that were making workers sick, the federal government in July 2020 earmarked $16.2 million in new funding to ramp up ESDC's agricultural inspections. The AG found the new money did little to improve the quality of their work.

Mexican and Guatemalan workers pick strawberries at a farm in Pont Rouge Que. on Tuesday, August 24, 2021. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The auditor general found that, over a two-year period, the department's inspectors produced shoddy reports most of the time.

The AG found problems in 73 per cent of all quarantine inspection reports filed in 2020.

The AG reports that even though her office flagged these "significant" shortcomings to the department's most senior bureaucrat earlier this year, the problem only got worse in 2021 — when 88 per cent of all inspections examined showed deficiencies. Inspectors also failed to "complete the vast majority of inspections in a timely manner," the AG said in her report.

Department 'did not do a good job'

Speaking to reporters after the report's release, Hogan said the department "did not do a good job." She said ESDC is grappling with "systemic problems throughout the entire regime" and needs to "step back" and "do things differently going forward" to show they actually care about the welfare of temporary foreign workers.

WATCH: AG says there is a 'systemic problem' with inspections in the temporary foreign worker program

AG says there is a 'systemic problem' with inspections in the temporary foreign worker program

12 months ago
Duration 1:11
Auditor General Karen Hogan says the lack of pandemic inspections in the temporary foreign worker program indicates a "systemic problem throughout the entire regime."

The AG's report shows that, in many cases, ESDC inspectors approved employers' pandemic protocols even though "poor-quality evidence or no evidence was collected" in most inspections "before employers were found compliant or the inspection became inactive."

In other cases — 16 per cent of all inspections reviewed by the AG — inspectors had actual evidence that an employer wasn't compliant with the pandemic regulations, but ESDC bureaucrats gave them a passing grade anyway.

A lack of 'diligence'

This year, 100 per cent of all inspected employers were found to be in compliance, despite the fact that in many instances, ESDC inspectors did not actually verify if workers' housing was free from serious health and safety risks.

The AG said the inspections lacked "diligence" and "urgency," shortcomings that left workers exposed to a dangerous virus during a health crisis.

While ESDC investigators were tasked with ensuring farm workers had space to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Canada, the AG found many inspections were delayed for so long that reviews "were still incomplete and inactive long after workers' quarantines had ended."

And when COVID-19 outbreaks were identified on farms, the AG found inspections were initiated quickly "but were inactive for long periods" — meaning ESDC investigators did little to help curb active infections.

A migrant worker from Mexico uses hand sanitizer as he boards a bus after arriving at Montreal's international airport on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In one particularly troubling case cited by the auditor general, it took a week for an ESDC inspector to first make contact with an employer after they reported an outbreak.

The auditor's report says that during an interview with the inspector, the employer said they weren't offering separate accommodations for workers who tested positive — both infected and non-infected workers were also sharing a bathroom and a kitchen.

After learning of this serious breach, the ESDC investigator "did not follow up on corrective measures for more than one month," the AG found.

The AG provided other examples of inadequate work produced by ESDC over the last two years.

During one 2020 inspection, bureaucrats were trying to determine whether 26 temporary foreign workers could safely quarantine at a particular farm. The evidence collected to show there was adequate social distancing in the workers' quarters amounted to just two photos — one of a table and one of a single bedroom.

"No follow-up occurred, and the employer was found compliant," the AG said.

'Poor-quality evidence'

During another 2020 inspection, bureaucrats assessed the quarantine accommodations for three temporary foreign workers. The employer sent along photos that clearly demonstrated the distance between workers' beds in a shared bedroom was far less than the required two metres.

Again, "no follow-up occurred, and the employer was found compliant," the AG said.

In a 2021 inspection to assess whether 10 workers could safely live in a particular facility, inspectors found the employer compliant after only reviewing "one photo of one bedroom." This review was also conducted two months later than required by departmental guidelines.

These are not unique cases. The AG found that in 76 per cent of all inspections reviewed, EDSC bureaucrats collected "poor-quality evidence or no evidence" to show compliance with the two-metre distancing regulation.

Migrant workers prune fruit trees in Pereaux, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

While ESDC inspectors were tasked with interviewing workers about their living conditions as part of their checks, most didn't bother. In half of all inspections, ESDC inspectors did not interview the required number of workers. In some cases, no workers were interviewed at all.

And even when the workers interviewed flagged serious concerns — some workers said they had no access to food while in isolation — the AG found no evidence that inspectors had acted to address these issues.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, the minister responsible for ESDC, said Thursday she accepts the AG's findings.

Qualtrough said the department hired more inspectors, implemented a tip line and invested money in migrant workers' associations last year.

"Clearly, despite our efforts, we fell short," she said.

Qualtrough pledged to "rebuild" the temporary foreign worker inspection program and do more to support the inspectors tasked with carrying out this work in the future. "Rest assured, we'll do better," she said.

Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers for Change, said the AG's report is "deeply, deeply concerning" but not all that surprising, given ESDC's track record in this area.

"The auditor general is saying what we already know — inspections cannot and will not protect migrant farm workers," Hussan said in an interview. "ESDC was not created to protect migrant farm workers. It was created to ensure a steady supply of cheap labour.

"The fact that these inspections found all employers are compliant shows that the federal government is unable and unwilling to protect migrant farm workers."

Hussan said the federal government should make all would-be farm workers permanent residents so they can enjoy more legal protections.

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, the party's employment critic, called the situation "simply unacceptable." She said that even though the auditor general warned earlier this year that ESDC's processes were "flawed", the track record of the inspectors only got worse.

"Once again, this Liberal government has been caught saying the right things to reassure Canadians, but failing to take action," Kusie said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Raffy Boudjikanian

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