Feds target housing fix for farms
New standards, guidelines must be followed to employ foreign workers
COVID -19 is forcing governments to think and work faster, and for Canada’s labour minister that includes finding a solution to the pandemic threat posed by overcrowded housing found among migrant farm workers.
When it comes to improving accommodations for thousands of foreign workers who help run the domestic food supply chain, “we’re talking now, we’re talking weeks — this is weeks away,” federal Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough told the Star on Tuesday.
Faced with public criticism about the quality of some of the housing provided to the temporary foreign workers they employ, local farmers point to the estimated six different agencies — from three levels of government — that monitor, inspect and enforce that issue alone. It shows, they say, the thick level of scrutiny in place to ensure their workers imported from other countries are properly accommodated.
But having so many different players involved in that oversight has also led to criticism over who is actually in charge.
Housing, ultimately, is a provincial jurisdiction, but Qualtrough said the global pandemic is forcing a change on Canada’s farms.
“We’re just going to assume jurisdiction,” said the minister.
While the federal government will “of course” work with the provinces, Qualtrough said Ottawa will set new housing standards and guidelines that employers will have to follow.
“If you don’t provide this, you’re not getting any workers,” Qualtrough (L—delta) told the Star in a phone interview. Her ministry manages Canada’s temporary foreign workers program.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s greenhouse growers — a large number of whom are concentrated in Kingsville and Leamington, two municipalities coping with COVID -19 outbreaks among farm workers — said his association welcomes the news and that “significant investments” are awaiting the announcement of Ottawa’s eventual plan.
“We want to get there, and the quicker the better,” said Joe Sbrocchi, the Leamington-based general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
A quick informal survey he recently conducted showed almost $13 million in new residential construction for farm workers is on hold pending anticipated new housing standards that could affect their designs.
Sbrocchi said he was not aware of Ottawa’s timeline, but added: “I’m just glad somebody has it and is running with it.”
The four largest farm housing projects he’s heard of that are idled are in Essex County, he said.
Describing the current guidelines for farm worker housing as “definitely very confusing,” Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos also expressed satisfaction that the federal government appears to be creating a single, national standard for such accommodations.
Santos said a “tangled web” has the province in charge of creating building, fire and various other codes and standards, but with the municipalities responsible for enforcement and other players involved. In the case of on-site farm bunkhouses, for example, it’s the local health unit that is tasked with giving approval.
The result has sometimes been confusion and miscommunication, said Santos. Town inspectors earlier this year did a survey of what they thought would be 150 bunkhouses approved on Kingsville farms, but the actual figure was over 200 such sites across the municipality.
“When there’s a new location approved for housing, we’re supposed to be notified — that hasn’t always happened,” said Santos.
“COVID definitely shone a spotlight on cracks in the system,” said Qualtrough. “This whole program needs an overhaul.”
Housing is an immediate priority, but new rules for how Canada treats its guest workers from Mexico and other foreign countries will be in place before the next growing season, she said.
Last Friday, Qualtrough and Agriculture and Agri-food Minister Marie-claude Bibeau announced a $58-million federal investment to “boost protections for temporary foreign workers” by addressing COVID-19 outbreaks on farms. On Tuesday, the province announced again that Windsor and Essex County would remain the only Ontario region at Stage 2 of the economic recovery, due in part to continued outbreaks on local farms.
“We want to see Windsor-essex get to Stage 3,” Sbrocchi said in a statement released from his organization.
“As growers, our job is to get food on people’s plates and to keep workers safe while doing so.”
As part of Ottawa’s most recent funding announcement, Qualtrough said the number of annual farm inspections will jump to 6,000 from about 1,500 PRECOVID and will include random and unannounced farm visits, as well as followup investigations of worker complaints.
But the minister concedes the issue is “very complex and complicated,” including how to tackle “thousands” of undocumented foreign workers employed in the agri-food sector who are without any attachment to existing regulated programs, including health and income supports.
Before becoming a politician, Qualtrough was a human rights lawyer and she said she’s keen on addressing a “power imbalance” between farm employees and their employers. Many migrant workers are tied to a single employer, who has the power to send a worker packing if they speak out.
“If your choice is, you stay or you go back home, that’s not really a choice,” said Qualtrough.
Part of the “massive challenge” in addressing the various issues on the farm, particularly during a health pandemic, she said, is that Canada’s agri-food sector provides an essential service, bringing domestically grown foods to the table. While there might be some “bad actors” out there, she said “a lot of employers are really stepping up.”
Getting the farm workers to also step up — by enabling them to speak up without risk or encouraging them to get tested — is why a big portion of the $58 million in new federal dollars announced last week will go toward outreach with the migrant worker community and groups who assist them.
Communication and instilling trust in health and government authorities are areas in need of improvement, said Qualtrough.