In the News
Migrant Workers Take Action
Auditor General’s Report Provides More Evidence of Abuse of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers
– Barbara Biley –
A report released in December by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada provides more proof of the dangerous and unhealthy living conditions that many seasonal agricultural workers are forced to endure. For many years, migrant workers and advocacy organizations from coast to coast have been speaking out about the overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities in employer-supplied accommodations. While the provinces set the standards for workers’ accommodations, the federal government is responsible, through Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), for managing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This includes inspections of workers’ living and working conditions.
The information provided in the recently released report of the Office of the Auditor General is that employers do as they please and the federal government, through ESDC, gives its stamp of approval. In fact, with little to no information and even in cases of obvious violations, ESDC rated all employers as being compliant with COVID-19 protocols. This is in spite of the fact that conditions on farms during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to serious and extensive outbreaks and the deaths of at least four migrant farm workers in Ontario while the government pays lip service to protecting workers. The lack of accountability is in fact built into the system.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was set up by the federal government to solve a problem for employers. The program provides labour when it is needed without any requirement to meet Canadian standards in sectors where poor wages and untenable working conditions mean that there are few takers on the domestic market. Under the program workers are tied to a single employer. This means that standing up to abuse can mean dismissal, no income, and — because they are denied the option of finding another job — deportation and few prospects of future work in Canada.
According to the legal system in Canada, people only have rights based on state-determined criteria. People are categorized as citizens, permanent residents, temporary workers on a path to permanent residence, temporary workers with no right to seek permanent status, undocumented workers in a state of legal and civil death, and others.
The state is doing the bidding of the rich by keeping a section of the working class in a vulnerable position and open to abuse by employers who are then protected by the state. This ensures that the low wages and poor working conditions in agriculture, domestic work, caregiving and the meatpacking industry are not improved to a standard acceptable to Canadian workers.
In 2021, 88 per cent of quarantine inspections were deficient, up from 73 per cent in 2020, yet all employers were found to be in compliance. This fact was dismissed by Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, the Minister responsible for migrant workers as part of the ESDC. Her statements are arrogant and dismissive, given the consequences of an unaccountable system suffered by the workers. “(W)e fell short” and “rest assured, we’ll do better,” Qualtrough said with no sense of shame whatsoever.
Migrant Workers Alliance For Change pointed out, “The problem is the system of temporary labour migration itself that produces the abuses and crises the Auditor General uncovered.
“It’s not just inspections. Under federal policies, migrant farm workers do not have direct enforceable rights. There is no legislation that governs enforcement, no court or legal process to turn to for workers to denounce violations of their rights and there is no meaningful mechanism for ESDC to ensure workers receive reparations for violations of their rights. As a result, workers continue to live and work in unsafe and abusive conditions, and if they try to assert their rights, they face termination, homelessness, deportation and not being called back to work in future years for speaking up.”
Workers’ Forum joins with migrant workers and their organizations in demanding that all workers who come to Canada be recognized as permanent residents, that they have access to the same services and legal protections as all workers and a path to citizenship for themselves and their families should they so choose.
(Workers’ Forum, posted January 26, 2022)