July 2, 2020 - No. 46
Justice for Migrant Workers!
Ontario Government's Dehumanizing Plan for Migrant Agricultural Workers
• Something Rotten in Ontario's Greenhouse Operations -- and it Isn't the Tomatoes
- Margaret Villamizar
• Spirited Actions in Leamington Demand Justice for Migrant Workers
• Advocating for Seasonal Agricultural Workers in British Columbia
- Interview, Perla G. Villegas-Diaz
• Playing with the Lives of Temporary Foreign Workers in Quebec:
It Must Not Pass!
- Diane Johnston
Justice for Migrant Workers!
There are now over 1,000 agri-farm workers, most of them
migrant workers, who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ontario. Over
700 of these have been associated with workplaces in Leamington and
Kingsville. Over the weekend 191 new cases were confirmed by the
Windsor-Essex Public Health Unit, all of them from a single operation.
Although the health unit has not named the company, the Windsor Star
reports that it was told by a national representative of the United
Food and Commercial Workers Union that it is Nature Fresh Farms in
Government's New Public Health Guidance:
Work-Isolation Instead of Self-Isolation
June 24, one day after calling out "farmers" for not cooperating in
getting their workers tested for COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford did a
180-degree flip. In twenty-four hours he went from blaming and pleading
with the "farmers" in Essex County to do the right thing, to praising
them for stepping up to the plate. Now, they were helping get
more of their workers tested to determine the extent of the outbreak
among agricultural workers in order to get it under control and keep it
from spreading throughout the community.
related about-face was his announcement that Windsor and Essex County,
with the exception of Leamington and Kingsville, would be allowed to
advance to Stage 2
reopening, a reversal of his position the day before when he said the
entire area had to remain at Stage 1 -- the only jurisdiction in the
province with that level of restrictions. That had small business
people up in arms, leading many to vent their anger against big
greenhouses going full tilt in the middle of outbreaks and resisting
workers tested, while they were forced to keep their small shops and
restaurants closed and feared they might lose those businesses.
So what changed? It became apparent a deal had been struck when
Ford announced his government's three-point Plan to
Reduce Transmission on Farms and in the Community in
first point calls for expanded testing at agri-food businesses and
the community. The second point is an attempt to provide
reassurance that no worker would lose their job if they had to
"unpaid sick leave" because of COVID-19, that they could apply for
workers' compensation, and some possibly even for EI or CERB. It
says that temporary foreign workers all have "protections like any
other worker in Ontario" under such things as the Employment Standards
mention is made of the many exemptions that apply to farm workers and
more so to migrant farm workers when it comes to employment standards
and labour laws in Ontario, leaving them basically at the mercy of
their employers, without being able to unionize or bargain collectively
to have a say over their working conditions (and where
it applies, deplorable living conditions).
Point three reveals the crux of the deal the government struck with
growers to get their buy-in for mass workplace testing rather than
resisting it. A new public health guidance is introduced for the sector
that provides for "allowing" workers who test positive but are
asymptomatic to keep on working, "as long as they follow the public
measures in their workplace to minimize the risk of transmission to
others." Ford mused that the new rules would allow COVID-19 positive
but asymptomatic workers to continue to work, grouped together,
outside, and eating and sleeping separately from other workers.
The new guidance appears to give an infected worker who does not
show or report symptoms the option of self-isolating rather than
continuing to work ("work isolate") if that is their "choice." There is
no "choice" for migrant farm workers who who came here to earn a living
to support their families at home when being off work even while
sick, for most means they will not get paid. These workers' lives are
being put at risk by the government of Ontario in keeping with the
self-serving wishes of agribusiness owners.
What is also left unspoken is that a significant section of
temporary foreign workers who work in the fields, greenhouses and
vegetable packing facilities in Essex County are undocumented workers.
They are paid under the table in cash, usually through a recruiter or
some other agent who hires them out to companies, taking their own
These workers operating below the radar have no access to
the income supports and protections the government claims all migrant
workers enjoy if they must, or "choose" to, self-isolate rather than
continuing to work should they test positive.
Responses to Government's New Plan
government's new plan was immediately praised by industry owners who
clearly played a big role in coming up with it. One of these was Peter
Quiring, president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms that has been
identified unofficially as the site of a major outbreak of COIVD-19.
Quiring, who says approximately 360 "guest workers" are included in his
staff of around 670 workers, called the government’s new guidance
it was announced. "I was personally working with Doug Ford and Ontario
health on this, as well as many others," he said. "We really like the
conclusions that we've come to. We think this is going to work
Quiring said isolating asymptomatic workers on farms and
"the fact that we can keep working" is the most important part of the
new plan. He said at the time that he was not concerned that
asymptomatic workers would transmit COVID-19 to other employees,
"because we're distancing."
Nature Fresh is the largest bell pepper
producer in North America, shipping 7 million kilograms of product a
Migrant worker advocates were equally quick to respond. Syed Hussan,
executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, denounced
the government and agri-food owners for treating migrants as
expendable, calling their plan "dehumanizing" and "debilitating." He said "You
would not allow your father, your son, your brother, your
mother, your sister, your daughter to be treated like this," adding that "Ontario has responded to three farmworker deaths by
signing a death warrant for more migrant workers."
Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) spokesperson Chris Ramsaroop
called for the agri-food industry to immediately cease production until
proper sanitation and safety measures are implemented, saying the
interests of the workers must be paramount, instead of the profits of a
Doctors and other health care experts have responded with
incredulity at the inhuman new guidance and the unscientific
gobbledygook being used by the government and employers to justify it.
On June 30 a group of them posted an open letter to Ontario's Chief
Officer of Medical Health on the internet calling on him to use his
the Health Protection and Promotion Act to immediately rescind
the measure. They have invited other health care professionals to sign
and share the letter. It can be found here.
Windsor-Essex Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said on June
30 that he had not cleared any of the hundreds of workers who had
tested positive and whose cases had been examined, to return to work,
whether they were asymptomatic or not. He reported that at the time
there were between 400 to 450 migrant workers in
self-isolation and said farms needed to act proactively by immediately
isolating any worker who tested positive and getting any close contacts
Then on July 1, in addition to announcing 7 new cases in
the agri-farm sector, the health unit issued an update regarding the
outbreak at an operation it did not name but is presumed to be Nature
Fresh Farms where 191 new cases were identified over the weekend. It stated:
Given the size of
this outbreak, the potential for COVID-19 transmission, and the ongoing
risk to the health and safety of the workers, Medical Officer of Health
Dr. Wajid Ahmed is issuing an order under section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA)
effective July 1. The order requires the owner/operator of the farm to
ensure the isolation of workers and prohibits them from working until
further direction. [....]
The safety and well-being of all
workers is our top priority. It is imperative that we stop the
transmission of COVID-19 in this farm and our agricultural sector. All
affected workers must be isolated and their health and wellbeing be
monitored before any return
to work can be discussed.
An official later
clarified that the order to isolate applied to all workers at the
location, not just those who had tested positive, effectively shutting
the operation down for the time being.
1. The government's new guidance gives
responsibility to the local public health unit to provide direction to
workers deemed to be asymptomatic who have tested positive. It says
these workers must self-isolate or "work-isolate" if that is determined
appropriate by the health unit, for 14 days. Should symptoms develop,
they should self-isolate
for 14 days from the time of symptom onset. Close contacts of the
asymptomatic workers who are not tested can also either self-isolate or
work-isolate if that is determined appropriate by the health unit.
Instead of affirming the rights of workers infected
with the coronavirus and permitting them to recover fully and not risk
infecting others, the Ontario government working directly with some of
the largest greenhouse operators and without any voice for the workers,
has decided to allow workers who have tested postive for COVID-19 to
in the fields and greenhouses as long as they are not displaying or
In other words, workers will have to choose whether or
not to report the symptoms they might be experiencing. It is equivalent
to having the "choice" whether to feed your family or not since paid
sick leave is not a requirement in Ontario or of the federal
government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. This program last
year brought in around 25,000 workers from Mexico and smaller numbers
from Jamaica and several other Caribbean countries through contracts
between the Canadian government and governments of the sending
countries. Then there is the issue of those who have been
identified as close contacts of these workers, some of whom would have
the same "choice" to make.
Not a small number of workers in this industry work
under the table since they are undocumented (at least 2,000 are
believed to be in this category in Essex County) or for other reasons.
Sometimes these precarious workers travel between workplaces, assigned
by recruiters to different operations as short term "contract workers."
This has likely already contributed to the spread of the virus, and to
the death of 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos, one of the three
Mexican migrant workers who have died in Ontario from COVID-19. To
presume this practice will now disappear because it is no longer
"allowed" is a fairy tale or more likely an attempt to hide what is
rotting in the greenhouse operations.
large agribusinesses operating in Essex County make their profits by
treating migrant workers as if they are expendable, preying on their
economic vulnerability as a result of the economies of their homelands,
especially the agricultural sector, being ddestroyed by neo-liberal
globalization and "free trade" agreements like NAFTA and CUSMA.
Governments, instead of affirming the rights of the
workers, are determined to maintain the profits of these agribusinesses
at the expense of the workers using laws which prevent them from
organizing. They ensure, through contracts negotiated with the
governments of Mexico and 12 Caribbean countries, that seasonal
agricultural workers are supplied for up to eight months a year and
that wages are kept to the minimum.
The fact that much of the production from this part of
Southwestern Ontario goes to U.S. markets shows a serious problem with
the direction of Canada's economy.
Food production is not geared towards food security for the Canadian
people, despite the industry being deemed "critical" to Canada's food
supply after growers engaged in high-level lobbying to ensure they
could get the workers they require into the country despite the border
being closed to international travel. It is all about keeping large
multi-million dollar industrial enterprises, some of them multinational
-- and certainly not family farms as some like to call them --
profitable in a highly competitive sector. One of the ways this is done
is by limiting the claims of the workers, and at the expense of the
well-being of the human beings who generate the industry's profits
turning nature into the massive bounty that comes from modern
The collaboration of various levels of governments with
this inhumane setup shows that governments operate as an extension of
these large enterprises and view the workers' claims as a problem.
Why does the agriculture industry have to run on such an
inhuman basis? Why are governments forcing infected workers to keep
working? What does this tell us about the aim of Canada's food
production system? Or the safety of it? What is the point of the
economy when workers' lives are expendable but maximum profits are
The greenhouse operations in Southwestern Ontario are
part of the integrated North American economy. They supply fresh
produce of all kinds to the United States and produce profits for their
owners on the basis of depressed wages and working conditions of local
and foreign workers, access to water from the Great Lakes, and
subsidies and services of various kinds.
What has been exposed through the pandemic confirms that
a new direction is needed. Food production should be organized to meet
the need of Canadians for healthy food and of workers, irrespective of
where they come from, for livelihoods at a Canadian standard.
Ironically, July 1 marks the coming into force of the new NAFTA
(CUSMA). During its renegotiation, the Canadian government and its
team made a big deal of insisting that Mexico raise its labour and
human rights standards. The facts reveal that Canada is in no position
to give lessons to Mexico.
1. The Financial Post reported in
that according to Statistics Canada, exports accounted for 65
per cent of the total
value of Canada’s greenhouse vegetable production in 2016, the
last year for which
numbers are reported.
March for migrant workers' rights, Leamington, June 28, 2020.
On Sunday June 28 actions were held in Leamington,
Ontario to show the support of the working people of Ontario for
agricultural workers in the Leamington-Kingsville area, a centre of
greenhouse growing and packing operations in Essex County. The actions
were organized by Justice for Migrant Workers and local youth, and were
joined by working people of many ages and backgrounds.
long line of vehicles set out from the Walmart parking lot and drove
past a number of agri-food workplaces. People painted messages on their
vehicles or attached signs to them in English and Spanish expressing
solidarity with migrant workers and demanding their rights be upheld
and guaranteed. Many members of local unions flew their flags from
their car windows and carried them in the march following the caravan.
Among them were flags from the Canadian Union of Public Employees,
Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Ontario Public Service Employees'
Union, Canadian Office and Professional Employees, Ontario English
Catholic Teachers' Association, Elementary Teachers' Federation of
Ontario, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Unifor, the
Windsor and District Labour Council and the Ontario Federation of
Labour. Among those participating in the caravan was OFL President
The caravan drove past many greenhouses, horns honking
in a show of solidarity, aware that workers were inside some
buildings despite it being Sunday. Many drivers the caravan passed
honked their horns as well, signalling their support for workers who
are an important part of their community. One of the large operations
on the caravan’s route was the multinational cannabis giant
Aphria, as well as a greenhouse operation it has a joint venture with
Double Diamond Farms. A bunkhouse for migrant workers employed by
Double Diamond Farms was the subject of a video that has been
circulated widely showing how 12 workers are forced to live in cramped
quarters with only cardboard and thin cotton sheets separating their
The caravan ended at the Big Tomato, a landmark in downtown Leamington where participants rallied and shouted slogans.
Elizabeth Ha, an activist with Justice for Migrant
Workers and OPSEU member who is on the Windsor and District Labour
Council Executive was the caravan's main organizer. She said a lot of
people in the community didn't really know about the conditions migrant
workers have faced for a long time, but as a result of the pandemic
they were starting to see those things now. She said the caravan and
march let the workers know the community stands in solidarity with them
and wants to thank them. They are essential workers. But, said Ha, they
don't have the same rights that we do. She said the government needed
to make changes and cannot keep avoiding it.
A March for Migrant Workers'
Rights followed the caravan, organized by local young women activists. It
went through the streets of Leamington with participants shouting
slogans and displaying signs and banners. It ended with a rally outside
Lakeside Produce, another of the large greenhouse, packing and
operations. There organizers held a speak-out denouncing the Ontario and Canadian governments for their support for
the exploitation of vulnerable workers in this sector. They
specifically demanded an accounting for the $15 million the
Ontario government gave greenhouse operators to purchase PPE for
workers, which some workers report their employers are forcing them to pay for.
Speakers denounced the entire agribusiness sector that is based on the super-exploitation of migrant and
undocumented and poor workers, pointing out that whether in meat
processing or vegetable processing, the industry is based on
is not sustainable, referring to calls from some quarters that a
solution to problems in agribusiness or those related to climate change
lies in moving from meat-based to plant-based foods and production.
Speakers also informed the crowd about the three migrant workers from
Mexico who had died of COVID-19, humanizing them by
repeating their names and appealing to everyone to consider them like
they would their own family.
Migrant workers' organizers in Kelowna, BC, June 17, 2019.
interviewed Perla G. Villegas-Diaz, an activist and researcher with
Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), who herself is from
Mexico. She is in Canada with her family studying International
Development at Okanagan College.
Workers' Forum: Tell us about your work with seasonal agricultural workers.
Perla G. Villegas-Diaz:I
came to Canada almost three years ago. I am a lawyer in Mexico,
worked for 15 years with a federal human rights tribunal, and while I
am studying here I learned of the situation of migrant farm workers in
this community and last year I accepted work as a research assistant
with RAMA. To be honest I didn't know
anything about the conditions of workers who come to Canada every year
to work on farms. When you live in Mexico you think that those who go
to Canada or the U.S. are "living the dream." Last year I met a lot of
workers and I remember two in particular who told me "Can you imagine
working more than 10 hours a day without being
allowed to use a washroom or being allowed to drink water, even when it
is 38 degrees?" They live in crowded conditions.
Have there been any changes this year because of the COVID-19? Are
there any new measures being put in place to improve the living
conditions to protect the workers?
No, it's exactly the same. We thought that there would be improvements
because the government said that employers had to provide the best
sanitary conditions for workers, no crowded housing, social distancing.
When I started to visit SAWP workers before the peak of COVID-19 I
realized the employers were just keeping the same
I had a phone call from a worker in Mexico asking
me, how am I going to live, what is the housing, how is the employer
going to treat me now, so I decided to talk with his employer and they
just told me, well tell him that we're going to take care of him,
we have a trailer for him to live in, the trailer has the best water
electrical conditions but no, no, the government did not talk about
trailers, the government talked about having the workers in quarantine
in hotels or in other houses.
I talked to several employers and it was clear that they were not about
to take care of the workers. I think that is the reason the British
Columbia government decided to take
care of the 14-day quarantine in hotels near the Vancouver airport when
the workers arrive, before they were allowed to come to Kelowna,
because they realized that the employers were not respecting the rules.
WF: Are there fewer migrant workers this year?
There are fewer people from Mexico and from Jamaica, I know. The
majority of workers who come to BC are from Mexico, I think about 70 per cent,
and the rest are from Jamaica, and probably 5 per cent from Guatemala.
WF: What does RAMA do?
RAMA was founded ten years ago by Amy Cohen and Elise Hjalmarson and we
help migrant workers in many ways. For example, we provide English
classes, we organize soccer games and other social events. If they have
an emergency we take them to the doctor. We translate for them. If they
have problems with employers or managers
we also offer interpretation and translation services. What we want is
to socialize with them, to make them feel included in Canadian society
because all the farms here are far away from the city and the workers
are very isolated. We also make the people in the Okanagan aware of
their presence in the community, the role they play in food
production and their working conditions. We also provide legal
WF: How are the workers recruited?
Since 1974 there is a memorandum of understanding between Mexico and
Canada. The employer has to fill out a Labour Market Impact Assessment
then this documentation goes to the labour office in Mexico and in
Mexico they have a big list of workers they provide the Canadian
employers. This is between the Mexican consulate in
Vancouver and the employers in BC. There's a lot of discrimination.
Employers don't want women so they don't select women from the list.
They also try to get the same workers year after year so new people
have little chance. Employers can also refuse to take a worker that has
been 'complicated,' complained to Worksafe BC or spoke out loud
about the working or living conditions. This means workers don't speak
out, even to the consulate, because they fear losing the work. This is
a kind of punishment.
Two days ago I talked with a worker who told me "two
years ago I had an accident and I seriously injured my back and then I
talked with the consulate. My employer took good care of me but the
consulate told the employer that I needed to get back to Mexico," so
even when the employer was worried about the worker the consulate
decided to take him to Mexico and once the worker was in Mexico the
consulate told the worker 'well you are in Mexico, you don't deserve
any medication, you don't deserve any treatment, your wife can take
care of you.' Then the consulate cancelled his application to work in
Canada for two years. Now he is here but he decided not to talk to
anyone about anything. He told me, if I have an accident I have to take
care of myself by myself and god help me.
WF: How has COVID-19 complicated matters?
Workers under the SAWP are forbidden to unionize and are denied basic
rights that Canadian workers have. There are many examples of poor
living conditions. Last year we visited one farm where the employer
housed 15 workers in a small room four metres square. One worker told
me that he has to walk about one kilometre to use the
washroom and he is not paid for the time it takes to go there and back.
He said the washroom hadn't been cleaned in one year. So COVID-19
complicates things because of the overcrowded houses, because of the
poor sanitation and because workers get respiratory and skin injuries
because they are constantly exposed to the use of pesticides and
irritants with no protection. What has changed is the fact that they
are more policed than they used to be because employers don't want
anyone to know about their conditions, so they are even more
At one farm with about 100 workers the workers told us
"don't come here, don't approach us because if the employer sees us
any person not from the farm we are going to be punished with being put in
quarantine for two weeks without pay, so please don't come around. Don't
even call us frequently because if one of the managers knows that I am
talking to you I am going to be punished." As well, SAWP workers are
not eligible for citizenship or permanent resident status.
Farm workers are considered crucial to food production
in Canada because they are willing to do the dirty work, but they are
undesirable as permanent residents. One of my friends has been working
in Canada for 26 years, coming to Canada to work for seven to eight months
every year, then going back to Mexico but still she is undesirable as a
resident. This is not acceptable and RAMA supports the call for
permanent resident status for seasonal agricultural workers.
This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that
Quebec will only receive a maximum of 12,000 Mexican and Guatemalan
temporary foreign agricultural workers instead of the approximately
17,000 who came last year. To make up for the shortfall, huge pressure
is being exerted by some employers on those already here,
who are being asked to work 16-18 hour days. They're exhausted and even
though they may be told that they don't have to, "they're scared," says
Michel Pilon of the Quebec Migrant Agricultural Workers Help Network
In April, the help line set up by the organization,
whose mission is to offer assistance to Quebec's temporary foreign
agricultural workers on issues relating to immigration, health,
education and francization, received close to two dozen telephone calls
from foreign workers overly-solicited by their employers to make up for
the slack. And
although all the complaints remain anonymous, they nonetheless testify
to the huge pressure being exerted on these workers by some employers
in Quebec's agri-food industry.
Unwarranted and unauthorized confinement measures are
also being taken against some of these workers by certain employers,
which only exacerbates the intolerable stress these workers are
Upon their arrival at the airport, RATTMAQ has been
handing out leaflets to these Mexican and Guatemalan temporary foreign
workers about COVID-19, the 14-day quarantine period they are to be
immediately placed under, along with information on their rights during
this period of the pandemic.
In April, RATTMAQ received over twenty calls regarding
disciplinary measures that had been taken against some workers for
having left the farm after their 14-day quarantine was over. For
example, one of these workers had decided to go out on his day off to
buy food. Although he had followed the required social distancing
measures, disciplinary action was taken against him because he had left
the farm. "Producers are saying they're afraid COVID-19 will make its
way to their farms, so they're controlling their movements. That's not
okay," RATTMAQ spokesperson Michel Pilon told the media.
Quebec's Union of Agricultural Producers notes in
one of its newsletters that following their quarantine, workers fall
under the same rules as everyone else when going outside. It adds that
they have the right to leave the farm if they so desire. The employer's
responsibility, it points out, is to ensure they are aware of the rules
going out, of social distancing and the risk of infection.
Preventing them from going off-site, it warns, would contravene
Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Quebec),
which represents some of these workers, has also been informed that
some workers have been prohibited from leaving their employer's
grounds. UFCW Quebec representative Julio Lara was forced to intervene
with one employer, after some workers were suspended for having left
their employer's grounds.
like the many other temporary foreign migrants, including refugee
claimants and international students working in Quebec's health care
sector, slaughterhouses, warehouses and in our fields, these workers'
rights are being grossly violated. Not only do they face the denial of
their rights by their employer, the Quebec and the federal
government also bear huge responsibility for their living and working
conditions and continue to turn a blind eye to their fate. Though they
are often enticed here with the possibility of being able to
settle permanently, the decks continue to be stacked against them
through constant arbitary changes to immigration policy by
both the Quebec and federal governments.
Regarding the insufferable stress they are placed under,
one example is the letter dated April 1, 2020, signed by federal Health
Minister Patty Hajdu and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, which
informs employers that "It is important that you know that penalties of
up to $750,000 can be levied against a temporary foreign worker for
non-compliance with an Emergency Order made under the Quarantine Act."
On April 22, the federal government announced it was
removing the restriction allowing international students to work a
maximum of 20 hours per week while classes are in session, "provided
they are working in an essential service or function, such as health
care, critical infrastructure, or the supply of food or other critical
measure significantly increases the risk of them contracting COVID-19.
In Quebec, the new measures brought in by the Legault
government through its reformed Quebec Experience Program (PEQ), which
came into force at the end of June, will increasingly prevent
many low-skilled temporary workers and international students from
being able to permanently settle in Quebec.
Quebeckers and Canadians from all walks of life continue
to rally to the cause of these and other essential workers for the full
recognition of their rights, including permanent residency upon
arrival. The jobs these workers fill are not temporary, they are
recurring, with no takers in the Quebec and Canadian domestic market,
because of the
conditions of indentured labour attached to them.
The workers who fill these recurring jobs year in, year
out, must be given permanent residency upon arrival if they so desire,
as must all essential workers living here whose status has not been
regularized. Their rights as human beings, as well as workers, to decent
and dignified working and living conditions must be recognized now. It
by working together and organizing in defence of the rights of all that
we will succeed, shoulder to shoulder, in turning their situation
around. If they are good enough to work, then they are certainly good enough to stay and
deserve the same rights as other Quebec workers. As essential workers,
they are the ones providing care
and ensuring that food is put on our tables. By speaking out and
organizing with them in defence of their rights, we are also fighting
for the recognition and guarantee of our own.
1. TML Weekly, May 2, 2020, Temporary Foreign Workers Merit Permanent Residency, Not Threats! - Diane Johnston
(To access articles individually click on the black headline.)
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