June 17, 2020
The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 1341 Baseline Road Ottawa, ON K1A 0C5
The Honourable Marco Mendicino
Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada 365 Laurier Avenue West Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1L1
OPEN LETTER RE: SUPPORT FOR MIGRANT WORKERS ON FARMS UNDER CANADA'S TEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKER PROGRAM AND SEASONAL AGRICULTURE WORKER PROGRAM
Dear Minister Bibeau and Minister Mendicino,
We write to you today following the tragic death of two migrant workers from Mexico in recent weeks in relation to COVID-19 outbreaks on farms in southern Ontario, and with more than 280 additional confirmed cases in the region. As the NDP Critics for Agriculture and Agri-Food and for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, we have deep concerns for the plight of migrant workers on farms under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program and Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program.
Earlier this week, on June 8th, the Migrant Workers Alliance published a damning report entitled Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada. This report compiles data from phone calls with 180 migrant workers calling on behalf of 1,162 workers between March 15 and May 15, 2020. The results are alarming. As not all migrant workers may have access to a phone or are in possession of the Migrant Workers Alliance phone number, the report is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the conditions other agricultural migrant workers may be exposed to under the current realities of COVID-19.
Some of the glaring issues identified in the report include:
Lack of Permanent Residence status upon landing in Canada makes it impossible for workers to assert their rights: identified as a key factor in workers’ abilities to protect themselves against COVID-19, ask for decent housing and healthcare information.
- Fear for health being related to fear of lost income: workers not being provided with health cards, and not being provided with healthcare information or who to contact; being prevented from leaving farms; the greatest fear of becoming sick was associated with the fear of lost income and inability to send money home to family.
Wage theft: the authors identified $57,369.46 in lost wages in the form of deductions or lost wages; many felt the threat of deportation if they were to raise these concerns. This figure was verified using pay slips, contracts and photographs of receipts.
Border closures and delays resulted in lost income and workers were coerced to travel to Canada because no income supports were available: CERB excluded these workers while they waited to come to Canada because they were outside the country; many feared coming to Canada from regions with relatively low cases of COVID- 19 infection.
Social-distancing, adequate food, and health information during quarantine: the report authors spoke with 316 migrant workers who were either not paid during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arriving in Canada, had their pay clawed back, or were not compensated for the required 30 hours/week.
Housing concerns and limitations on worker mobility: lack of essential supplies, cleanliness issues, cramped quarters, and the presence of animals or pests. 205 workers complained about being unable to leave their employer-provided housing, being unable to send pay to family back home, purchase credit for Canadian telephone cards, or to access food or other basic supplies.
Intimidation, surveillance, threats and racism increased over previous years: workers being treated as “disease carriers” even when their region of origin had no COVID-19 outbreaks; private security guards stationed at bunkhouses prohibiting workers from leaving; threats of being arrested by police for failure to follow employer orders, many reported being treated worse than in previous years.
- Intensification of work, including longer hours and weeks without breaks: 128 workers reported that, to make up lost time due to COVID-19, many have worked for weeks without days off, working longer hours, and have suffered increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace.
We urge you to instruct your respective departments to immediately undertake a review of the existing situation on Canadian farms with respect to migrant workers. It is evident from the volume of complaints this 60-day snapshot put together by the Migrant Workers Alliance that there a need for immediate action. We further urge that you undertake to act on the recommendations as outlined in the report.
The living conditions identified by these workers are simply unacceptable and we look forward to your prompt response, detailing the steps being taken by the Government of Canada to ensure migrant workers who grow the food that supports Canadians – and the world – are treated with dignity, respect and to ensure their health and safety.
Alistair MacGregor, MP Cowichan-Malahat-Langford
NDP Critic for Agriculture and Agri-Food
Jenny Kwan, MP Vancouver East
NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship