Community `can do better' for temporary foreign workers
The fresh crop of migrant workers is starting to arrive from Guatemala, Jamaica and other foreign countries to an Ontario under government stay-at-home orders while the pandemic escalates.
Those returning after the 2020 season are keenly aware and understandably frightened that two of their colleagues died on local agricultural operations during COVID-19 last year. When several farms were deemed hotspots after outbreaks among migrant workers staying in employers' crowded bunkhouses, alarmed Mexico even temporarily halted sending workers to Canada last June.
At that time, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu called some local farms' treatment of their migrant workers “a national disgrace.”
“In Windsor, we say we were the end of the Underground Railroad and we stood in a different place and didn't benefit from forced labour like that which went on in the United States. Well, when we look at this current situation with migrant workers, it's hard to say that there is a choice there for those workers and not recognize similar elements to the system that we thought we were the liberators of and the end of the road for. That's not the situation for migrant workers coming into this territory now,” says Marion Overholt, Legal Assistance of Windsor executive director.
“I think it is so disappointing, especially at a time when we think we are developing this awareness of racial injustice and inequality. As a community, we are gaining greater insight. To allow this situation with migrant workers to continue shows that we have not achieved that recognition that it is incumbent on all of us to do better and ask our government to show that political will to treat these workers with equality, with fairness, and not make them risk their lives every time they come to our country to provide the essential food services we all benefit from,” says Overholt.
COVID-19 has exacerbated already challenging working conditions found on numerous agricultural businesses. “I think it's going to be a situation where the next generation is going to look at us who could have changed this and ask why didn't you. It's just intolerable,” Overholt says. “It's going to be one of those chapters we look back on and be ashamed about.”
Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 seasonal workers are employed to work in fields and greenhouses at 176 farms in Windsor-essex County during peak growing season. A number remain here year-round, working in the greenhouses, helping to produce and harvest produce. They come under the jurisdiction of federal and provincial governments and the local medical officer of health.
The government of Canada has just introduced its new Home Test Kits, to be given upon arrival to temporary foreign workers who must conduct a self-administered COVID-19 test on day 10 of their 14-day quarantine.
“Guidelines still let employers make discretionary decisions as to how migrant workers are housed and their access to personal protective equipment. Workers are still at risk to exposure to COVID -19 - and still in same position of having to make hard choices where they feel unsafe versus not working at all,” Overholt says.
“The money that workers bring back to their local economies is so important,” she says. In addition to supporting their families, “those originating countries are dependent on it, especially with no travel and tourism.”
With COVID-19 “increasing the whole precarious nature of work in general, Overholt observes, “so many workers are fearful they are risking their health to maintain an income. That dread is intensified for migrant workers. This job is the means of supporting their families when they have no other means.”
Isolated on farms, exposed to hazardous materials, language barriers, permission to work at only one ag operation plus the knowledge the boss can send them home anytime leaves migrant workers with little leverage. “As a country, we can do so much better,” Overholt believes.
Several weeks ago, the federal government announced it was spending $17.8 million over 12 months for the ongoing operation of the isolation and recovery centre created last July for migrant workers infected with or exposed to COVID-19. More than 1,000 patients were sheltered at the 125-bed centre, which is operated by the Canadian Red Cross. Along with medical care, migrant workers are provided with meals, personal services, psychosocial and emotional supports and activities.
Some concerned citizens at the grassroots level are trying to help secure fair treatment for the valuable visitors working here at Canada's invitation. Among them is Elizabeth Ha, vice-chair of the Workers of Colour Caucus, OPSEU Coalition of Racialized Workers and migrant worker advocate with Justicia.
Upon learning migrant workers needed food last year, Ha put out a call for help on social media and received regular grocery donations from generous neighbours. On her deliveries to bunkhouses on farms, Ha got to know many people well. They are top of mind for her on the National Day of Mourning this Wednesday, April 28.
“There have been two migrant worker deaths during COVID-19 here. But there have been many more deaths in workplaces due to health and safety concerns. There is an increase in injuries and illnesses because migrant workers are not being protected,” Ha says.
Justicia and other local unions and labour groups are standing in solidarity with migrant workers. At harvestingfreedom.org, for instance, a public letter from ag workers in Leamington spotlight challenges over use of limestone at one local farm.
Quick to acknowledge Essex County has many good, responsible ag employers, Ha points out, “last year during quarantine, farmers posted to the community they were hiring and were willing to pay local workers $25 an hour – but they were paying migrant workers half that.”
All while living in pandemic hotspots.
“I know as a Canadian, I can go to the Labour Relations Board or elsewhere and have the privilege to say I'm not doing that, I quit and then walk away,” Ha says. “We must be a voice for migrant workers who really can't really say anything.”
I think it is so disappointing, especially at a time when we think we are developing this awareness of racial injustice and inequality.
- MARION OVERHOLT