Farms un­safe for work­ers: ad­vo­cates

Mi­grants com­plain about racism, threats and crowded space amid virus out­breaks

Calgary Herald - - FINANCIAL POST - JAKE EDMISTON Fi­nan­cial Post

Mi­grant work­ers in Canada are fac­ing un­safe liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions amid a se­ries of COVID-19 out­breaks on On­tario farms, ac­cord­ing to an ad­vo­cacy group.

Mi­grant Work­ers Al­liance for Change (MWAC) on Mon­day re­leased a re­port sum­ma­riz­ing com­plaints made to its tip line be­tween March 15 and May 15 by work­ers from Mex­ico and the Caribbean about racism, threats, surveil­lance, poor ac­cess to food and dirty, cramped bunkhouses, with 40 peo­ple in a dorm re­port­edly shar­ing one shower in one case.

“We are in the midst of a hu­man rights catas­tro­phe,” MWAC ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Syed Hus­san said on Mon­day.

The re­port comes after a se­ries of re­cent out­breaks on On­tario farms that have seen hun­dreds of mi­grant work­ers re­port­edly test pos­i­tive for COVID-19. Two mi­grant work­ers, iden­ti­fied as Boni­fa­cio Eu­ge­nio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz San­tos, both from Mex­ico, have died from the virus. At least two other mi­grant work­ers are in in­ten­sive care, MWAC said.

“The em­ployer was not in­ter­ested in our well-be­ing, only in the work we do for him,” a farm worker from Mex­ico, iden­ti­fied as Edgar, said through a trans­la­tor at an MWAC video news con­fer­ence.

Em­ploy­ment and Work­force De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Carla Qual­trough’s of­fice on Mon­day said in a state­ment that there is “more to do” to pro­tect mi­grant work­ers in Canada.

“The re­ported cases of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iours and un­safe work­ing con­di­tions are com­pletely unac­cept­able,” the state­ment said, not­ing the govern­ment has al­ready pledged $50 mil­lion to farm­ers to help with the costs of hous­ing and pay­ing work­ers for 30 hours a week dur­ing the manda­tory two-week quar­an­tine upon their ar­rival in the coun­try.

But MWAC said it has re­ceived com­plaints from work­ers who re­ported not re­ceiv­ing their full quar­an­tine pay. Oth­ers re­ported not re­ceiv­ing enough food dur­ing that two-week pe­riod.

“Six­teen work­ers re­ported re­ceiv­ing only one loaf of bread and a car­ton of eggs to feed them all for two days,” MWAC said.

“One group of nine work­ers called us about be­ing placed in a house where dogs had been liv­ing, that smelled of dog urine and had not been cleaned prior to the work­ers’ ar­rival.”

In an­other sub­mit­ted com­plaint, a group of work­ers said they re­ported is­sues with their food to a fed­eral govern­ment helpline.

Govern­ment of­fi­cials re­port­edly reached out to the em­ployer, who threat­ened the staff about com­plain­ing again, MWAC said.

Qual­trough’s of­fice did not re­spond to a ques­tion about the al­le­ga­tion.

Mary Robin­son, pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Fed­er­a­tion of Labour, said bad play­ers in the in­dus­try “should be brought to jus­tice,” but added she be­lieved the “vast ma­jor­ity” of farm­ers were treat­ing mi­grant work­ers with de­cency.

“We would love to un­der­stand who is abus­ing the sys­tem, if these al­le­ga­tions are true, be­cause we rely on this sys­tem. All of Canada re­lies on this sys­tem,” she said.

“It’s a very low wa­ter mark they’re set­ting. We all get painted by the same brush.”

The MWAC re­port said many mi­grant work­ers were afraid to speak about the con­di­tions they faced, with some com­plain­ing that

Many mi­grant work­ers re­port that em­ploy­ers are us­ing COVID-19 to ... clamp down on ba­sic worker free­doms.

their em­ploy­ers threat­ened to fire them, which would re­sult in them be­ing de­ported and los­ing a sea­son’s worth of wages.

MWAC said it re­ceived roughly 180 calls to its tip line be­tween mid-march and mid-may on be­half of 1,162 work­ers, since some work­ers don’t have ac­cess to Cana­dian cell ser­vice or the in­ter­net.

“Many mi­grant work­ers re­port that em­ploy­ers are us­ing COVID -19 to fur­ther clamp down on ba­sic worker free­doms, break­ing down sup­port sys­tems and so­cial net­works, and tar­get­ing out­spo­ken work­ers by en­sur­ing they re­main con­fined to work­places and bunkhouses,” the re­port said, adding that some com­plained of pri­vate se­cu­rity guards sta­tioned out­side their bunkhouses.

Oth­ers re­ported that their em­ployer had threat­ened to re­port them to the po­lice if they didn’t com­ply with in­struc­tions, MWAC said.

“Com­plaints about threats were dis­pro­por­tion­ately higher for Caribbean work­ers who are largely Black men,” the re­port said.

“Work­ers also re­ported in­creased racism from em­ploy­ers, lo­cal shops, and some com­mu­nity mem­bers who treat them as if they are ‘disease car­ri­ers’ — even in cases where work­ers ar­rived be­fore COVID-19 hit.”

In­dus­try and ad­vo­cacy groups have said the re­cent farm out­breaks have been from lo­cal com­mu­nity spread, and not from in­com­ing mi­grant work­ers.

MWAC called for im­me­di­ate ac­tion from the govern­ment “be­fore more lives are lost,” and added the pan­demic has only ex­ac­er­bated decades-old is­sues fac­ing many mi­grant work­ers.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion wants a na­tional hous­ing stan­dard and per­ma­nent res­i­dency sta­tus for all mi­grant labour­ers, ar­gu­ing such changes would al­low work­ers to refuse to work in un­safe con­di­tions with­out fear of be­ing sent back to their home coun­tries. MWAC is also urg­ing snap in­spec­tions of any farm with a re­ported out­break, with farms shut­ting down un­til health au­thor­i­ties clear them to re­open.

SHAN­NON VANRAES/REUTERS FILES

The Mi­grant Work­ers Al­liance for Change has re­ported the need to pro­tect mi­grant work­ers in Canada. It re­ceived about 180 calls to its tip line with com­plaints on be­half of 1,162 work­ers.

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