Politics

Exploitation, abuse, health hazards rise for migrant workers during COVID-19, group says

Migrant workers in Canada are demanding better protections after two men died from COVID-19, hundreds more have been infected and complaints mount about dangerous work and housing conditions.

Foreign workers complain of unsafe work conditions, demand federal action in wake of 2 deaths to coronavirus

People hold up signs during a demonstration outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's constituency office in Montreal on Saturday, where they called on the government to give residency status to migrant workers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

A group representing migrant workers in Canada is demanding better protections after two men died of COVID-19 and hundreds more have been infected, and as complaints mount over dangerous working and housing conditions.

A new report presents a grim snapshot of workers who fear for their health and livelihoods after arriving in Canada to perform work the federal government has described as vital to the country's food supply.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change heard complaints from more than a thousand workers on a variety of issues, including a lack of access to protective equipment, crowded conditions that don't allow physical distancing, poor access to proper food during quarantine and unfair gouging on wages and meal costs.

The group's executive director, Syed Hussan, said dismal housing and working conditions have been reported for years, but during the pandemic, they're even more dangerous.

"Two workers are already dead, hundreds are sick, at least two are in ICU. And we don't know what tomorrow will bring," he told CBC News.

Hussan said most migrant workers don't report conditions out of fear of reprisal, or because they don't have the ability to do so. They want the federal government to give them permanent resident status so they can assert their right to a safe workplace.

"If you leave a job right now, or you refuse unsafe work, you face termination, homelessness, deportation and you can't come back in the future. Permanent residence status takes away those limitations on you so you can keep yourself safe," Hussan said.

$50M to help cover costs

Each year, about 60,000 foreign workers come to Canada.

In April, the federal government announced $50 million to help farmers and fish processors who are bringing in temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Under that program, employers are eligible for up to $1,500 per foreign worker to help cover the costs of complying with a mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in Canada.

Employers must provide accommodation for the employees during the self-isolation period and pay the workers during the 14-day period.

At the time, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the funds were to help employers carry out the "vital" work of feeding the nation while protecting the health and safety of Canadians.

"The men and women who work in our food supply chain are essential to ensuring Canadians have access to a variety of high quality food at a reasonable price. In many regions in the country the production of food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, relies on the contribution of experienced temporary foreign workers right from planting season to harvest," she said at the time.

A spokesperson for Agriculture Canada said that if an employer is found to have not been compliant with requirements under the Quarantine Act or the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, they would no longer be eligible for the $1,500. If they already have received reimbursement, they are required to repay the funding.

Watch: 'We need to do better by migrant workers,' Trudeau says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says migrant workers play a crucial role in Canada's food sectors and the government must do more to protect them. 1:23

'Crisis from within a crisis'

The alliance will officially release its report, called "Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers," at a noon ET news conference today with foreign workers speaking out about their experiences.

Calling the heightened dangers "a crisis from within a crisis," the report calls for immediate action to address the "fundamental discrimination and exploitation built into Canada's temporary immigration programs." 

"Until then, there will always be more abuses to expose, indignities to denounce and demands for change to be made," it reads. 

The report says the workload for many foreign hires has intensified during the pandemic and that some employers are forcing workers to go at "breakneck speed."

"As fewer workers are coming in, or workers' arrivals are delayed, migrant workers already here have seen dramatic work intensification: 128 workers reported working for weeks without a day off, being forced to work long hours, and suffering increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace of work," the report says.

Since employment and labour laws often exclude migrant workers, there are no rights to minimum wage, overtime pay, limited hours of work, breaks, days off or collective bargaining, the report states.

Farms are 'rigorously' inspected

Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association, said he is not aware of any unsafe conditions or inappropriate pay issues as described by the report. He said bunkhouses are "rigorously" inspected twice a year by local health units and are also subject to inspections by provincial and federal authorities.

"If there were problems, I'm sure they were corrected. But I haven't seen, to my knowledge, any fines being levied against any grower for violating the new rules as far as housing is concerned," he said.

WATCH | Migrant workers face unsafe conditions during pandemic: report

A new report paints a damning picture of working conditions for temporary foreign workers helping to maintain Canada's food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a lack of PPE and even exploitation and abuse. 2:00

George said the challenges thrown up by the pandemic aren't limited to sectors using foreign workers.

"It's not just the migrant workers. It's any workplace in Ontario that's going to have challenges with outbreaks going forward this year until we have a vaccine," he said. "I think it's just important that the employer as well as employees follow the best safety protocols in place and limit the spread of COVID-19."

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said most employers value their skilled workers and treat them well. Regulations and inspections are in place to make sure they do, she said.

"It can't help but play on your head and think that it's horrible if people are actually being treated that way," she said. "Another part of me questions how true these allegations are."

Workers cited in the report also alleged an increase in acts of racism by employers, local shops and some community members, and said they've been treated like "disease carriers."

The report says 209 migrant workers reported increased intimidation, surveillance and threats by employers, "often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols."

Reports of anti-Black racism

The report also noted a higher number of complaints from Caribbean workers, who are mostly Black men.

"Racism, and specifically anti-Black racism, underpins workers' experience," the report states.

Other complaints outlined in the report include:

  • Workers who could not physically distance during the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada.
  • Lack of access to health care and information.
  • Unfair wage and meal cost clawbacks.
  • Crowded housing conditions after quarantine without essential sanitization.
  • Lost income because of border closures and extended travel times.
  • Lack of ability to send remittances (payments) to family at home.

CBC News has not verified the complaints in the report.

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the government will do more to protect workers.

"Whether they're permanent residents or whether they're simply temporary foreign workers, we need to do a better job of protecting temporary agricultural workers in this country, temporary foreign workers in this country. We have taken a number of steps, but there's more to do and we will do it," he said.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan said the government must do more to protect foreign workers.

"We say we value them and we need them for our economy, and yes we do. But we also need to ensure that we follow on that when they come to Canada. They should be able to return home safe and sound," she said.

NDP calls for pathway to residency

Kwan said the federal government must also offer a pathway to permanent resident status under the principle of "good enough to work, good enough to stay."

Kwan also said the government needs to step up enforcement to make sure employers are treating workers safely and humanely.

Service Canada can carry out inspections, with or without notice, to verify an employer's compliance with the program. Such inspections can happen within the first 14 days of a temporary foreign worker's arrival.

Between March 1 and May 29, there were 585 inspections, according to a spokesperson for Carla Qualtrough, the minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion.

Penalties for not complying with the new conditions include fines of up to a $1 million and bans on hiring foreign workers, which can be made permanent.

The government has not yet responded to a request for information on what penalties, if any, have been imposed to date.

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