August 16, 2021 - No. 70

Ontario Hospital Workers in Action

Province-Wide Demonstrations
Demand Repeal of Bill 124

Conditions of Migrant Workers
• Temporary Foreign Agricultural Workers Increasingly at Risk - Diane Johnston

Ontario Hospital Workers in Action

Province-Wide Demonstrations Demand
Repeal of Bill 124

According to Prime Minister Trudeau, the COVID-19 pandemic is over and he is ready to receive a post pandemic mandate from the electors. The fact remains that the pandemic is not over, attested to by Canada's Chief Public Health Officer who reports that in fact we have entered the fourth wave. In her August 13 statement she said, "The latest national seven-day moving average of 1,609 new cases reported daily (August 6-12), is an increase of 70 per cent over the previous week," and that there are early signs of increases in severity trends, with an increase of 14 per cent over the previous week in the number of people being treated in hospitals.

Furthermore, no summation whatsoever has taken place of the conditions across the country. The crisis in the health care system is a case in point. The crisis in the entire system is getting worse, mostly because of privatization and the relentless and ruthless pursuit of programs to pay the rich and consider the working people dispensable.

Within this, hospital workers in Ontario are facing the same problems as health care workers in other provinces. These problems existed before the pandemic but have become much worse, the most significant of which is staff shortages. Without sufficient staff, patient care is compromised. Instead of increasing investments in health care, including training and recruiting workers in all areas, those working in health care have been forced into untenable overwork situations and have been denied necessary rest which affects their health and well-being as well as that of their families and their patients.

Since July, 70,000 hospital workers who are members of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions-Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU-CUPE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been organizing actions at hospitals throughout the province demanding Respect Us. Protect Us. Pay Us. and Repeal Bill 124. The purpose of the rallies is to mobilize union members and the public in support of the workers' demands that Bill 124 be repealed and that the Ontario Hospital Association engage in negotiations with the unions for a new collective agreement without government dictate of what can and cannot be negotiated. Hospital workers, like all public sector workers, are being targeted by Bill 124, legislation passed by the Ford government in 2019. Bill 124, the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019, imposes a three-year "moderation period" on public sector workers during which increases to compensation (i.e. wages and benefits) are capped at one per cent per year. The current rate of inflation is 3.6 per cent which means that a one per cent wage increase is a 2.6 per cent pay cut.

It is unconscionable that at this time the Ford government is insisting on enforcing the language of Bill 124 to actually cut wages and to take away job security protections that already exist.

In addition to the attempt to impose this cap on compensation, the unions report that the Ontario Hospital Association has presented them with a list of concessions related to job security which would strip away protections previously negotiated, including reduced rights in a contracting-out situation and the elimination of seniority as a major factor in getting a job.

Speaking to the press at a rally at Renfrew Victoria Hospital on July 27, OCHU Secretary-Treasurer Sharon Richer explained the situation that hospital workers are in after months of working in extremely difficult conditions during the pandemic. She spoke of the sacrifices that hospital workers have made, many unable to take vacations or time off, many reassigned to work in jobs other than their own or to work in long-term care homes. There have been many instances of workers isolating themselves from their families for long periods of time to avoid bringing COVID-19 into their homes and communities. She said "Everyone is afraid to bring COVID-19 into their homes since many haven't worked with the proper PPE in 20 months." More than 23,000 Ontario health care workers have contracted COVID-19 and 24 have died.

Throughout the pandemic hospital workers have continued to carry out their responsibilities, putting their health and lives in danger to look after hospital patients and residents in long-term care homes. It is governments and employers such as the Ontario Hospital Association that are not acting responsibly. Providing the right of all to health care with a guarantee is a social responsibility of government which includes ensuring that health care workers themselves have the wages and working conditions that they need in order to do their jobs. Wage reductions and other concessions will only exacerbate the problem of recruitment and retention of hospital staff. Workers are demanding that their voices be heard and denouncing government decrees that put workers and patients at risk.

Workers' Forum calls on all workers to support hospital workers in their fight for the repeal of Bill 124 in Ontario and for wages and working conditions that workers themselves deem acceptable in Quebec and across the country.

(Photos: SEIU, OCHU)

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Conditions of Migrant Workers

Temporary Foreign Agricultural Workers
Increasingly at Risk

"This year, more and more agricultural workers are being approached by recruiters in the rare public spaces they frequent, such as grocery stores, fast food places or parks" an article published in Le Devoir on July 29 points out. The authors of the article are Danièle Bélanger and Guillermo Candiz, respectively professor and post-doctoral researcher at Laval University; Michel Pilon and Véronique Tessier, Director General and Coordinator of the Quebec office of the Support Network for Migrant Agricultural Workers in Quebec (RATTMAQ); and Eugénie Depatie-Pelletier, President of the Association for the Defence of Rights of Household and Farm Domestic Staff (ADDPD).

For many of these workers, the labour shortage and the pandemic are contributing to the creation of "even more onerous living and working conditions than in past years."

Added to this, the fact that their work permit is closed (they cannot change employers) "creates a relationship of dependence resulting in many suffering from abuse." The authors' own fieldwork and the many interventions made by their organizations attest to the fact that for many workers, "psychological harassment, non-payment of holidays, non-declared work accidents, dismissals without reasonable grounds and the confiscation of personal documents" are common occurrences.

And even though in 2019 the federal government created a program so that the victims of abuse could apply for an open work permit in order to change employers, the procedure is complex and requires the assistance of skilled intervenors. Moreover, the fear of being denounced by an employer and the potential repercussions prevents many from taking that route.

Their great vulnerability and lack of recourse, the authors point out, opens the door to the creation of networks that recruit workers to be employed under the table, a market stimulated by glaring shortages in certain sectors. "This vicious circle, already well-developed in Europe, Asia and the U.S., is now making inroads in Canada and Quebec," they write.

Such recruiters offer a job and housing to those daring enough to leave their workplace and go underground, which may appear particularly attractive to workers who acquired debt in order to come to Canada and are having difficulty paying off what they owe.

Added to all this are these workers' situation of isolation, restrictions on their movement and difficult housing and working conditions, which may provide enough incentive for some to decide to go underground in hopes of improving their lot. By doing so, however, they run the risk of expulsion and an even more abusive work environment.

The authors note that the closing of borders in the context of the pandemic may also contribute to the development of trafficking networks, that approach foreign workers and offer to smuggle them into the U.S., with the lure of better paid jobs or more freedom of movement. However, some workers in the Quebec City area who have accepted offers from traffickers for which they paid around $5,000, have been intercepted by the RCMP, while others have been apprehended by police in the U.S.

Fernand Borja, General Director of the Foundation for Foreign Agricultural Worker Recruitment (FERME), has reported that as of the beginning of August, 53 temporary foreign workers, mainly from Guatemala, have left their Quebec employer in 2021 and that "[i]f this continues, it will be a record year."

While most of these workers head to the U.S., some also go to Ontario, where there is a high concentration of greenhouse vegetable production.

Michel Pilon notes that "fraudsters are very active and we see this phenomenon growing." He adds that just a few weeks ago, four agricultural workers were intercepted on the U.S. side and were returned to Canada. To his knowledge, this happened to some 20 people in 2021.

The existence of closed work permits, the authors say, leads to further precariousness which, within the present context, gives rise to unregulated and dangerous situations for these workers.

The quicker these foreign workers are provided open work permits on the Canadian and Quebec labour markets, "the more the risk of them falling into the hands of fraudulent networks, where their lives and their integrity are endangered, is reduced."

Based on Canadian government figures, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 foreign agricultural workers come to work in Canada each year, which accounts for around 60 per cent of all workers who may enter Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Over 41,000 workers have arrived to date in 2021.

"The Government of Canada takes the safety and dignity of foreign workers very seriously. Everyone deserves a work environment where they are safe and their rights are respected," boasted Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in a July 26 press release announcing "new regulatory amendments" aimed at "[i]mproving protections for temporary foreign workers by mandating employers to provide temporary foreign workers with information about their rights in Canada; prohibiting reprisal by employers against workers who come forward with complaints; and, putting into regulation key requirements for all employers to provide reasonable access to health-care services, and for employers to provide health insurance when needed. The proposed changes would also prohibit the charging of recruitment fees to workers, and hold employers accountable for the actions of recruiters in this regard."

Almost two years into the pandemic and such measures are only being announced now? What else can be expected from a government ready to "sell them down the river" for personal and class gain? This expression, which originates from the slave trade, continues to be the reality facing these workers.

Human beings are society's most precious asset and the contribution these workers have always made, pandemic or not, merits full and permanent immigration status for themselves and their families.

Let's go all out to make this a reality!

(With files from Le Devoir and the Government of Canada. Photos: CAC, OFL, J4MW)

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