Feds tar­get hous­ing fix for farms

New stan­dards, guide­lines must be fol­lowed to em­ploy for­eign work­ers

Windsor Star - - NEWS - DOUG SCH­MIDT

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.

Carla Qual­trough

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