June 11, 2020 - No. 40

Demand Dignified Working and
Living Conditions, Health Care and
Status for Migrant Workers!

Rights for Migrant Workers NOW!
• Stand Up for Dignity Mobile Rally in Montreal  
Migrant Worker Defence Organizations Call for Permanent Resident Status in the Face of Mounting Abuse - Diane Johnston 
Unacceptable Deaths of Migrant Farm Workers in Southwestern Ontario
Conditions Faced by Migrant Farm Workers and Others Working in the Sector in Southwestern Ontario - Margaret Villamizar 
Demand for Safe Working and Living Conditions and Status for Migrant Farm Workers - Steve Rutschinski
Windsor Law Students Call for Concrete, Practical Steps to Ensure the Safety, Health and Rights of Migrant Workers
"Canadian-Owned" Greenhouse Operation Hotbed of COVID-19 in
New York State

Rights for Migrant Workers NOW!

Stand Up for Dignity Mobile Rally in Montreal

On Saturday, June 6, for the second time in just over two weeks, activists in Montreal, despite the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, rallied to the call of the organization Stand Up for Dignity in support of rights for migrant workers. In the space of just two weeks, the number of people participating in this mobile demonstration had tripled, with around 300 present in the parking lot beside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Papineau riding offices on Crémazie Boulevard East.

They came with Haitian flags and a Mexican flag, banners, placards and posters, shouting over and over: "Good Enough to Work -- Good Enough to Stay!"; "Quebec-Haiti: Solidarity!"; "Solidarity with Refugee Claimants!"; "Permanent Residency for All Essential Workers Now!"

They were joined by a number of political personalities. Alexandre Boulerice, NDP MP for Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, was present, as he was at the first action. Boulerice had presented a motion in the House of Commons on  May 25 calling for status for hundreds of refugee claimants deemed essential workers in recognition of the contributions. That motion was defeated by the Conservatives. Quebec National Assembly Independent Member for Marie-Victorin, Catherine Fournier, was also present. On May 13 she had tabled a motion in the Quebec National Assembly calling for the recognition of hundreds of asylum seekers working in Quebec's long-term residences and seniors' homes and requesting that the Canadian government quickly recognize their immigration status. That motion was defeated by the ruling coalition CAQ. Québec Solidaire Member of the Quebec National Assembly for Laurier-Dorion, Andrés Fontecilla was in attendance, as was Parti Québécois (PQ) Interim Leader and Member of the National Assembly for Matane-Matapédia, Pascal Bérubé and PQ President Dieudonné Ella Oyono. Members of the PMLQ and CPC(M-L) were also present. Markedly absent were federal and Quebec Liberal Party representatives of ridings in which the Haitian community has a large presence. 

With flags flying, banners waving, posters, placards and slogans in support of essential workers without status, activists then took to the street in a march, bicycle and motor convoy. For over an hour they made their way through a large residential neighbourhood, passing in front of Jean-Talon Hospital, shouting slogans and generally raising the roof to alert the residents of the importance of the contribution and sacrifice of our essential workers and for the demand to grant them permanent residency NOW! They were warmly greeted all along the route with recurring thumbs up, applause, fists raised and flags waved. It was truly a sight to be seen!

Once they had made their way back to where they started, Dr. Wilner Cayo, President of Stand Up for Dignity, the organizer of the action, said: "We are profoundly touched by this show of solidarity on the part of Quebeckers." "No one should forget the fight that many essential workers continue to wage to save lives in our hospitals, our seniors' residences, our CHSLDs [residential and long-term care centres]," Dr. Cayo said. A tribute was then paid to all those who had died in the fight against the coronavirus.

In reference to the many essential workers also waging a battle for permanent residency, he said: "They're afraid of being deported once the pandemic is over. They're in need of allies."

"Together," he said, "we can turn things in the right direction." He pointed out that "forty-eight hours after our first demonstration, the culminating point of many other efforts, [Quebec Premier] François Legault felt obliged to initiate a major political about-face. Let's not kid ourselves! The reality hasn't changed. We're here to continue the struggle." "It's because of you Quebeckers with a heart, the community organizations and groups, elected representatives and pressure groups, protestors, the people who believe in human dignity!"

Dr. Cayo explained that Legault's statement about wanting to thank refugee claimants had been met with a sigh of great relief by exhausted asylum seekers working in CHSLDs, who felt that their sacrifice was finally being acknowledged by the government. "Then, when he announced his plan to create 10,000 well-paying orderly positions along with all the social benefits, our people began to dream."

"Then came Black Tuesday [in reference to the announcement made by Premier Legault on Tuesday, June 2 when he stated that 'citizenship status is required to register']. In one fell swoop," Dr. Cayo commented, our people "have again become undesirable!"

"When it was an issue of the CHSLDs, of counting on work akin to modern slavery, these people were needed. When it was about working for starvation wages, [...] of risking one's life and even dying at work, these [...] refugee claimants were humanitarian workers. When the working conditions in the CHSLDs were abhorrent, they were good enough to work! Despite their experience and expertise, once the conditions become humane, they're no longer good enough to deserve them.

"The response was unequivocal. [...] These essential workers will not be participating in the orderly training program.

"François Legault is sending a clear message! If you are a racialized woman, particularly if you have been rendered even more fragile as a result of your precarious migratory status, even if you have sacrificed yourself for Quebec, you should not expect anything from Quebec!

"There's no humanity towards the most disadvantaged, no recognition! Only petty electioneering with no compassion, indifference towards the cries and pain of essential workers.

"Premier Legault's callousness is not worthy of Quebeckers' human values. Why keep these people in such dismal working conditions?" Dr. Cayo demanded to know. He then addressed himself to the Premier: "Through a measure falling under your own jurisdiction, you could have set aside places for these people who are already in the system and have been holding it up. It's a matter of common sense!

"They devotedly took care of our seniors at the pandemic's peak [...] at the risk of their lives! Don't leave them now to fend for themselves and at the mercy of predatory agencies that continue to pay them half the wages others are earning!

"These people," Dr. Cayo continued, "are already working, they're already committed. [...] They're already taking care of us in our grocery stores, slaughterhouses, meat-processing plants, private seniors' residences, CHSLDs. They're the orderlies, the clerks of all kinds, the security guards and others identified by you as essential workers.

"Your case-by-case policy [...] continues to be a policy of exclusion! We're not interested! We're requesting that the government consider the contribution these essential workers have made [and ...] that it make a humanitarian gesture towards them in the form of an exceptional measure under its own jurisdiction by receiving them as immigrants, [...] by according them [Quebec] selection certificates."

Then, addressing himself to Prime Minister Trudeau, Cayo demanded that he turn his words into deeds and grant "these people permanent residency." "It's a matter of dignity," he asserted.

Quebec Independent MNA Catherine Fournier noted that "For days now we've been talking about discrimination and it's part of the struggle we are waging today, because one has to reflect on the fact that when groups, minorities, are made vulnerable as a result of being left in the employ of often malevolent employment agencies, this also contributes to systemic discrimination within the society."

"We must absolutely continue to wage this struggle, which has resulted in a change of tune following the motion I tabled, through extraordinary citizen mobilization," Fournier said. "Now it's up to Quebec to assume its full leadership. We're done with waiting on Canada and its inhumane Refugee Board delays. Quebec must assume its full leadership in immigration and offer, once and for all, the status of Quebec resident to all the guardian angels presently working with the most vulnerable," Fournier concluded.

(Photos: V. Desrochers)

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Migrant Worker Defence Organizations
Call for Permanent Resident Status
in the Face of Mounting Abuse

On June 8, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) released a 28-page report of complaints on behalf of over 1,000 workers entitled: Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada. The report documents complaints of these workers that have gone unheeded by federal and provincial authorities and consulates in advance of the recent COVID-19 outbreaks that have led to two workers' deaths and at least two in Intensive Care.[1]

Co-author and MWAC campaigns coordinator Karen Cocq noted in a press release the same day: "Most of the workers we spoke to knew they would fall sick because of their living and working conditions but could not speak up because doing so means termination, homelessness, loss of income, deportation and not being able to come back in the future." She concludes that "To stop this grave crisis from worsening, it is necessary that all migrants be given permanent resident status immediately."

The report situates these abuses within the decades long history of unheeded warnings made by migrant workers about Canada's temporary immigration and labour laws.

Through the press release, we learn that "The biggest COVID-19 outbreaks have taken place at Scotlynn Farms, one of the largest farming operations in Ontario." One migrant worker said, "They treat us like robots. They only care about the work we do and the money they make because of our labour. Scotlynn Farms is saying that they took care of us, but when the first worker fell sick here, they didn't do anything. We workers got together and called the ambulance." The worker added: "It's not fair that they treat us like this. We need equal rights and permanent resident status."

Says MWAC organizer Sonia Áviles, who staffs one of the hotlines where the complaints were made: "The federal government has given nearly a billion dollars to agri-food businesses, while migrants who actually grow the food are falling sick and dying." What is needed, she adds, is for "the federal and provincial government to go in and see what's going on, and fix things to ensure workers are protected before more people die -- that means snap inspections, social distancing measures and permanent resident status."

The press release also informs that in 2017, migrant workers accounted for 41.6 per cent of all agricultural workers in Ontario and over 30 per cent of those in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

"Employers are using COVID-19 to lock migrant workers up, refusing to let them leave even to get groceries or send remittances home, while threatening them," notes MWAC organizer Kit Andres, who staffs the English hotline where the complaints were received. "Workers," she stated, "need permanent resident status so they can assert their rights."

The MWAC has sent several letters regarding migrants to the federal government that have also gone unanswered.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, notes the communiqué, over 6,000 people have signed on to a petition here calling for full immigration status on arrival. The Migrant Rights Network has also sent several letters regarding migrants to the federal government that have been ignored.[2]

Some of the key findings of the report are that:

- Lack of permanent resident status makes it impossible for workers to assert their rights;

- Employers are not taking COVID-19 precautions;

-Wage theft is commonplace, in the form of deductions and unpaid wages;

- Border closures resulted in loss of income, and workers were coerced to travel to Canada because no income supports were available;

- Workers could not socially distance and did not receive decent food, income or health information during quarantine;

- Housing conditions worsened dramatically after quarantine and greater limits have been placed on worker mobility;

- Intimidation, surveillance, threats and racism have greatly increased; and

- Work has intensified greatly during COVID-19.

The Migrant Rights Network is organizing a digital rally for Full Immigration Status for All on June 14 at noon. See calendar of events above and for further information, click here


1. The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) is an organization and a coalition. As a coalition, 28 member organizations support worker self-organizing, share resources and advocate together for changes to immigration and labour policy. MWAC is a coalition of grassroots migrant-led bodies of farm workers, careworkers, undocumented people and international students and local and national organizations. As an organization, MWAC supports migrant workers self-organizing in unorganized areas or sectors. Currently, MWAC is focused on supporting migrant worker self-organizing in the Niagara region, and migrant student organizing. MWAC is a member of, and forms the secretariat of the Migrant Rights Network - Canada's largest migrant justice coalition.

2. The Migrant Rights Network defines itself as a "Cross-Canada alliance to combat racism and fight for migrant justice." It describes itself as "a network of self-organized groups of refugees and migrants and allies."

(Photos: Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Justice for Migrant Workers)

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Unacceptable Deaths of Migrant Farm Workers
in Southwestern Ontario

An increasing number of farm workers in Southwestern Ontario have become infected with COVID-19, especially migrant workers on the federal government's two-year Temporary Foreign Worker Program or its Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). As of June 10, over 200 farm workers in Essex County are reported to have tested positive for the virus and two have died. Another two workers are in the Intensive Care Unit at Windsor Regional Hospital. Farm workers are said to represent around 22 per cent of all positive cases in the Windsor-Essex region. On June 8 and 9, there were 81 new COVID-19 cases reported in Windsor-Essex; 72 of these were farm workers. On June 10, Windsor-Essex Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said that these results are still from testing done before organized mass testing of farm workers began in Leamington on June 9. He further stated, "We would expect to see more cases as we expand the testing because now we are actively looking for cases. The impact of those cases, I think, is yet to be seen."

The health unit in neighbouring Chatham-Kent has reported a total of 148 cases of COVID-19, over 100 of them linked to an outbreak at Greenhill Produce. Two of those cases remain active, according to Chatham-Kent Public Health. There has also been a large outbreak among migrant workers at Scotlynn Farms in Norfolk County and another one at Pioneer Flower Farms in Niagara.

On May 30, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, a 31-year old worker employed at Woodside Greenhouses in Kingsville, became the first migrant worker to die of COVID-19 in Canada. Five days later, on June 5, 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos also died in hospital, the youngest person to die in Windsor-Essex. Both workers were from Mexico. Workers' Forum sends heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones, fellow workers and friends of Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos for their tragic and needless deaths.

According to news reports, Bonifacio was initially taken to the hospital by his employer on May 21 after he reported having symptoms. After being tested he was moved from the bunkhouse where he and his co-workers were being housed into a single hotel room to self-isolate and given some instructions to follow. Two days later, when his results came back postive for COVID-19, his close contacts were also moved into hotel rooms. During this time the Windsor-Essex Health Unit checked up "almost on a daily basis" on Bonifacio and the others, presumably over the phone. After a week spent this way Bonifacio called for help on May 31, saying he had trouble breathing. He was taken to the hospital by Emergency Medical Services (EMS) where he died within 30 minutes of arriving. The circumstances surrounding the tragic death of this worker, who had no known underlying health problems, suggest it could well have been avoided had he been afforded the kind of care, monitoring and treatment he needed instead of being dumped in a hotel room on his own, far from home and family.

Right after Bonifacio's death was made public it was announced that Erie Shores Health Care in Leamington and the Windsor-Essex EMS had put together two migrant worker assessment outreach teams to provide in-person assessments, and in some cases testing, for migrant workers at 15 different farms and greenhouses in Windsor-Essex County, and at hotels where some of them were self-isolating. The visits began the week of June 1 and are being carried out by a team that includes a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse, a paramedic and Spanish translator. As a result of their hands-on assessments, several workers were sent to the Leamington hospital and Windsor Regional Hospital for further assessment and treatment.

Rogelio Muñoz Santos is reported to have been diagnosed and hospitalized for COVID-19 in early May but was eventually deemed to have recovered and was released. However he continued to experience complications and became weaker, returning to Windsor Regional Hospital on his own, before the outreach teams began their work of actually carrying out in-person visits and check-up of these workers. He was admitted to the ICU and died a few days later. A GoFundMe campaign begun on June 8 to help repatriate Rogelio's body to Mexico and contribute towards funeral costs described him as an honest, hard-working and loving person whose dream was to be able to help his family pay off its debts, but because of the pandemic, he was left without work and without money. By June 10 the campaign had surpassed its goal of $10,000 and raised over $13,000.

The tragic and unnecessary deaths of these two young workers has moved many people and alerted them to the need for governments to be held to account for what happened.  For example at the June 9 meeting of the Windsor and District Labour Council, it was announced that the Executive had voted to support the fight of migrant workers for their rights, and to commit $1,000 to the cause. Affiliated unions and community groups will be informed of this decision and encouraged to also do what they can to support the cause of these workers.

It is of note that all incoming temporary foreign workers and seasonal workers were required to spend 14 days in quarantine before starting work this year to ensure they were free of the virus. Employers were given $1,500 per worker by the federal government to cover the cost of wages and food for the workers during this period. Migrant workers that have contracted COVID-19 are therefore assumed to have acquired it in Canada. This should surprise no one, given the often cramped, communal living quarters many are provided by employers, and workplaces some of them also have to navigate without proper PPE or provisions for physical distancing.

The initiation of mass testing of migrant farm workers in Essex County this week, along with certain other new measures announced by the Windsor-Essex Health Unit in the wake of the deaths of these two young workers are positive first steps. Other measures include a workplace being declared "under outbreak" when two or more workers contract COVID-19. If the workplace is deemed to be putting the public or its staff at risk, it will be shut down until the infection is under control. Dr. Ahmed said a list of workplaces that are currently under outbreak will be provided on the health unit's website sometime this week. Much more is still required, particularly of senior levels of government to urgently address the living conditions of migrant workers as well as the working conditions of all workers on these farms and other agri-food establishments.

The deplorable circumstances under which two workers have now died, with a still unknown number also infected and countless more put at risk are totally unacceptable and must be addressed -- not as a policy objective for when it is "realistic" as Premier Doug Ford has said, but immediately.

(With files from CBC, Blackburn News, RCI.net, Windsorite.ca, Windsor Star)

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Conditions Faced by Migrant Farm Workers
and Others Working in the Sector in
Southwestern Ontario

Essex County in Southwestern Ontario, with the largest concentration of greenhouses in Canada, is a large fruit and especially vegetable growing and distribution centre. Over 8,000 temporary and seasonal agricultural workers work in greenhouses, fields, orchards and packing facilities every year. Domestic workers also work in the sector, as do some international students. Several thousand international students, mainly from India and China, attend St. Clair College and the University of Windsor on study permits. In April the federal government announced that during the pandemic, these students whose visas restrict them to working a maximum of 20 hours a week would have this condition lifted until August 31 if they worked in "essential industries" such as food services, health care, infrastructure, or the supply of any other critical goods. These students can therefore be found working alongside other temporary and local workers in the agri-food industry in Essex County. There are reports of some of them moving from Windsor into crowded, overpriced units such as basement suites in places like Leamington in order to be close to their workplaces.

Almost 8,000 international students were enrolled at the University of Windsor and St. Clair College for the 2019-20 academic year. A minority of the St. Clair College students, many of whom are from India, are enrolled in programs at the Chatham-Kent campus. These students are a cohort of the 640,000 international students who came to study in Canada during 2019, and who are estimated to contribute around $33 billion annually to Canada's economy. They pay high tuition fees and must cover their living expenses in cities where rental costs have shot up dramatically the last few years, even in traditionally low cost areas like Windsor-Essex. The students may also be indebted to parasitic "immigration consultants" and recruiters who they paid to handle their visa applications with the lure of a two-year Canadian college certificate being a ticket to permanent residency, despite there being no assurance of any such thing. Like migrant workers whose ability to remain in or return to Canada for the next growing season depends on them not falling out of favour with the employers to whom they are tied, international students also are subject to economic pressures that keep them from reporting unsafe and exploitative working conditions at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic when the risks are much higher.

The person said to be in charge of "the facilitation of temporary foreign workers to Woodside Greenhouses," the pepper farm in Kingsville where Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, the young Mexican migrant worker who died of COVID-19, worked, was quoted in a news report on the worker's tragic death saying that workers are often reluctant to report symptoms for fear of losing pay if they are required to go into quarantine. What is this if not an indictment of an abusive practice that these workers who are touted as essential for Canada's food supply are not all guaranteed that if they are sick, possibly with COVID-19, and have to take time off work for everyone's good, they will still be paid?

While some employers may be covering workers' wages while they self-isolate, there is no requirement in Ontario for employers to provide any paid sick days for workers. One of the first things Premier Doug Ford did when his party came to power was repeal legislation introduced by the previous Liberal government that called for employers to provide a meagre two paid sick days a year to workers. It is all the more egregious that these workers who are housed together in close quarters, putting them at high risk of getting infected, should also feel pressured to keep on working even if they have symptoms, so as not to lose any pay.

Ford appeared "dismayed" at his press briefing on June 1 when the topic of migrant workers' living arrangements was raised. His first response was to say all these workers need to be tested. When pressed about how he was going to address the problem of the bunkhouses that serve as their living quarters, Ford said that it was something that "can be put on the table," He further said, "I've been there and seen the congregate living on these farms. Can we do it a month or so? I just don't think that's a reality."

The issue of migrant workers being forced to live in unregulated, substandard, cramped quarters is not something new. Workers and their advocates have complained about it for years, with no action being taken at the government level. For Ford to say there is not enough time to fix the problem now, when the added risks were known as soon as it became apparent a pandemic was on its way and had to be prepared for, is disingenuous. Clearly, to him and his government the lives and safety of these "essential" workers are not essential. These farms produce for export. It is just the industry and the profits of the owners of the farms and greenhouses that are essential.

The time is now to demand that all these workers who play an essential role in providing Canadians and others with safe and healthy fresh food be without exception guaranteed dignified working and living conditions and health care at a Canadian standard. Anything less is unacceptable.

(With files from CBC, CTV, Windsor Star, iHeart Radio/am800, The Varsity, CICNews. Photos: Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Migrant Rights. )

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Demand for Safe Working and Living Conditions
and Status for Migrant Farm Workers

As COVID-19 spreads in the migrant farmworker population of southern Ontario, demands for safe working and living conditions and status for migrant farm workers increase. As of June 2, Justice for Migrant Workers reports that there were more than 500 confirmed infections: more than 200 at 17 different farms in Windsor-Essex; 164 of the 216 migrant workers at Scotlynn Group in Vittoria; 102 at Greenhill Produce in Chatham-Kent; 60 at Pioneer Flower Farms in the Niagara region.

Justice for Migrant Workers has issued an appeal for people to call on Scotlynn Group to pay the workers full wages during their quarantine, to commit to not repatriate injured and sick workers so they receive full access to our health care system [and do not spread contagion to their home countries -- Ed. Note], and to rehire all the workers next year if they choose to return. [1]

Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Canada, recently told CBC he wants the public to know which farms have outbreaks, something the Windsor-Essex Health Unit will not do. "We have spoken about these issues in the past," he said. "We think we have witnesses that employers are not providing enough information and personal protective equipment and also these workers are not able to practice social distancing."

Escobar pointed to overcrowded housing which fails to meet federal housing standards as living conditions in which COVID-19 can easily spread. "Unfortunately we're witnessing that a lot of employers are not complying with the regulations they are supposed to follow," he said, adding that many workers from the Windsor-Essex region have reached out because they do not feel safe at their jobs.

Jade Guthrie, a food justice advocate and member of Justice for Migrant Workers, recently voiced again the demand for permanent status, a demand which migrant workers and advocate groups have been making for decades. "These workers pay taxes and into social benefits programs, but cannot access these services without status. They return every year, proving that the work they do is not 'temporary' but rather is a permanent and critical part of our economy. And perhaps most impossible to ignore, they put food on the tables of Canadian households," she said.

"The COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased concerns around food security and supply shortages, has underscored just how essential these workers are. Permanent status must be extended in order to ensure their safety and well-being, particularly at a time when they are risking their lives working on the frontline. The Canadian government needs to recognize that migrant workers are not disposable -- the fruits of their labour are quite literally those that feed us," Jade said.


1. Details can be found on the Justice for Migrant Workers Facebook page.

(With files from Justice for Migrant Workers, UFCW, CBC. Photos: Justice for Migrant Workers.)

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Windsor Law Students Call for Concrete,
Practical Steps to Ensure the Safety, Health
and Rights of Migrant Workers

On behalf of law students across Canada, and particularly law students at the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, Marco Mendicino's alma mater, Windsor Law, students from Windsor Law drafted an open letter to call attention to the situation of migrant farmworkers, and migrant workers in general, who have been deemed "essential workers" in the COVID-19 crisis. They urged the Minister to take concrete, practical steps in ensuring their safety, health, and rights are protected now and into the future.


Dear Minister Mendicino,

We are writing to you as current and former Windsor Law students, faculty, and members of the Windsor community. We are also writing to you as current and former students from across Canada who are concerned about the plight of migrant farmworkers during this difficult and stressful time. The work that migrant farmworkers do is particularly important to those of us in Windsor-Essex because, as you may know, thousands of migrant farmworkers come to work here every year. These workers are the backbone of the Canadian economy as they provide us with food security.

As we congratulate you on your appointment as the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, we also want to remind you that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to protect migrant farmworkers, who continue to take care of our needs, especially when not enough Canadians want to take up the work.

Migrant farmworkers come to Canada on employer-specific work permits, which prohibit them from changing employers without permission, even if they are facing abuse and mistreatment. There are also few benefits to reporting abuse because workers can simply be terminated and repatriated to their home countries. The structural inequalities created through the program have been well-documented and recognized by Canadian courts. In Hosein v Ontario (Community Safety and Correctional Services), the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario recognized that migrant workers are socially and geographically isolated in Canada and " . . [face] structural barriers and social marginalization common to all migrant workers."

Despite efforts to raise awareness around these issues, many migrant workers continue to live in conditions not fit for any human being, including crowded bunkhouses with little privacy, insect infestations, and non-functioning plumbing. These conditions also make workers vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission, as we have seen in outbreaks in Kelowna, BC and Windsor and Chatham-Kent, Ontario. If workers become ill, they should have the same access to health care as other Canadians, which they do not currently have, even with enhanced access under COVID-19 conditions. During this pandemic, no one should be prevented from accessing health care because of precarious immigration status.

Although health care does not fall within federal jurisdiction, the federal government does have the power to stop the repatriation and deportation of migrant workers. This will help reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. All workers should especially have access to Employment Insurance in this period of uncertainty. These efforts will not only improve the safety of migrant workers; it will contribute to wider efforts of controlling the pandemic and the risk it poses to all of us. We know the Canadian government places a particular focus on this latter goal.

Finally, as migrant workers are susceptible to the spread of the pandemic as a result of poor working and living conditions, the federal government should stop the repatriation and deportation of migrant workers. For decades, migrant worker advocates have urged the federal government to provide permanent status on arrival to farm workers to acknowledge their critical contributions to our society.

We echo that demand. Tied work permits perpetuate a power imbalance that deny migrant workers the ability to exert their rights in their workplaces. During this pandemic, we believe the federal government should provide open work permits to all agricultural migrant workers. This will reduce their vulnerability, and allow them to choose employers that treat them with respect, and increase their likelihood of finding employment if they are laid off, as many cannabis workers are at this time.

There is already a pilot project which allows some workers to apply for open work permits, but the process has proved excessively burdensome, especially due to the paperwork, language barriers, and difficulty in proving abuse. By extending the open-work permit to all migrant workers, the pilot project will ensure that all migrant workers are able to work in Canada with dignity and safe working conditions.

Our demands:

1. Permanent status on arrival for migrant workers. This is a critical time for migrant workers who still need to provide for their families and provide for ours. Granting them permanent residency status on arrival will allow them to choose safer workplaces where their rights are respected, and more broadly, will help control the transmission of COVID-19.

2. Stop the deportation and repatriation of migrant workers. Moving them across borders unnecessarily creates risk of COVID-19 transmission for them, and for other workers.

3. Issue open work permits to migrant workers rather than employer-specific work permits. When migrant workers have to ‘prove' abuse in order to obtain open work permits, it creates more difficulties as they must gather documents and other evidence they may not have, all while dealing with a complex immigration system in a language they may not know. Considering their value to Canada, their rights should be protected before they have the need to apply. This is especially important now, when migrant workers are more vulnerable than ever in the current COVID-19 pandemic. This will also benefit employers as they will save money and time in submitting LMIA applications.

4. Make Employment Insurance and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit available to migrant farmworkers whether they are in Canada or in their home countries. Migrant workers also contribute to the Canadian economy. If they lose their jobs in this pandemic, they should have access to funds that will sustain their needs like any other Canadian or permanent resident. They pay taxes as well.

5. Implement a Low-Paid Essential Worker support benefit to support migrant farmworkers. Migrant workers are designated essential workers who secure Canada's food supply chain. Canadians depend on their labour to buy fresh Canadian produce. The support benefit will help flatten the Covid-19 curve by paying essential workers with fair wages.

We urge you to take these meaningful and concrete steps to address the conditions of migrant workers in Canada and protect them in this period of uncertainty. As Canadians, we have responsibilities towards migrant workers as their labour and hard work sustains our economy, and our communities.

Others are invited to sign on to the letter here.

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"Canadian-Owned" Greenhouse Operation
Hotbed of COVID-19 in New York State

While it is not something that has made the news in Canada, it turns out that a major COVID-19 outbreak among migrant farm workers in the U.S. has a Canadian connection, and to Southwestern Ontario specifically. This year the largest greenhouse grower in Essex County, Mastronardi Produce, with its headquarters in Kingsville, opened what is on track to be the biggest greenhouse in all of North America, in upstate New York. Green Empire Farms located on the outskirts of the city of Oneida, is Mastronardi's seventh operation in the U.S. The company, which specializes in gourmet tomatoes, peppers, berries and other specialty produce, has operations in other countries as well, and big plans for further expansion on a global scale.[1]

Media in the Syracuse area of New York state report that as of May 19, 168 of the around 300 migrant workers at Mastronardi's Green Empire Farms had tested positive for COVID-19, turning it into a hot spot for the virus. It is generally believed that the outbreak did not originate in the mammoth new greenhouse where sanitation and distancing measures were said to be in place, so much as in the cramped, substandard living quarters the company provided for the workers. They were housed four or more to a room and even two to a bed at three hotels the company arranged for them to stay at since the company's own residences next to its greenhouse were said to be still under construction. These conditions were in place before the pandemic was announced and continued during it.

A longtime employee who cleaned the workers' rooms of one of the hotels became infected with COVID-19 and transmitted it to her husband, who died. She has no doubt she contracted the virus at her place of work. The owner of the hotel also became infected. The woman said the migrant workers told her they were scared. One young worker asked her not long after he arrived, "How can they make us sleep together in the bed?" She told him she did not know, that it was not up to her boss, but his boss, the one that hired him and brought him there to work. The worker told her he was afraid he would get sent home if he spoke up, and that he needed to work.

Dun and Bradstreet, a firm that provides financial profiles on businesses, indicates on its website that Mastronardi Produce has annual revenues of over U.S.$946 million. A report by the New York State media company CNY-Central indicates that the company received a total of $15.3 million in tax breaks and grants from the State of New York, Madison County and Excelsior tax credits to open its giant new Empire Farms greenhouses. Excelsior tax credits provide eligible companies with either 6.85 or 7.5 per cent of wages per net new jobs created. The report states that the Canadian owner promised that Green Empire Farms would create 200 new full-time jobs, at least 175 construction jobs, and a private sector investment of U.S.$120 million. It notes however, that answering questions about the health and safety of workers and the community was not part of any deal, and for nearly two weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak became known, CNY-Central's calls to Green Empire Farms had not been returned: "We've sent them emails and messages through social media. You can see that someone read the message, but no one replied.”

Mastronardi's website boasts that for 10 consecutive years it has been designated one of Canada's "best managed companies." Peter Brown, a partner with Deloitte and co-leader of the Canada's Best Managed Companies program was then quoted as saying, "Well-run companies are important to the economic health of our country. These companies serve as role models to help make all Canadian businesses better."

It's doubtful the migrant workers and others who have paid the price for the abuse they suffered at the hands of this global monopoly that touts its owners' passion for giving people greater "access to local, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables," would agree on it being any kind of a role model.


1. For example, in an August 2019 promotional piece in the industry magazine Greenhouse Canada, Mastronardi Produce announced a new venture called Green International Ventures LLC (GIVE) formed in partnership with a U.S. investor. GIVE's first project, planned for an unnamed country in the Middle East, is slated to be "the world’s largest and most technologically advanced indoor farming project." CEO Paul Mastronardi says it "will allow us to reach over half the world's population in less than eight hours, and this is just the start."

(With files from Syracuse.com, CNYCentral.com)

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