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Auditor General’s Report
The report by the Auditor General of Canada to Parliament, entitled Health and Safety of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic, was made public in December 2021. The report covers the period between January 2020 and June 2021.
The audit specifically focussed on the performance of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) in protecting agricultural workers in the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. It also examined whether Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada monitored compliance by employers who received funds under two of its COVID-19 support programs. These funds were designated to protect the health and safety of workers on farms, including their ability to quarantine safely.
ESDC, the government body responsible for managing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, assesses applications from employers and conducts inspections to monitor employers’ compliance with program requirements and applicable provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations.
The Auditor General’s 62-page report found “significant problems” with the inspection policies and processes of the ESDC, including their assessment of almost all employers as compliant with the COVID-19 requirements despite having gathered little or no evidence. Based on these findings for 2020, the Office of the Auditor General notified ESDC of the problems and extended their audit into 2021.
In 2021, the report says, “We found that the quality and rigour of inspections worsened, and in addition, a large backlog developed — so much so that the department did not complete the vast majority of inspections in a timely manner. Many inspections that were meant to determine whether employers met regulatory requirements for safe quarantine conditions were still incomplete and inactive long after workers’ quarantines had ended.”
The audit found problems in about 73 per cent of the quarantine inspections it reviewed in 2020 and notified ESDC. That number increased to 88 per cent in the spring and summer of 2021 after the department was notified of the problems. There were similar problems with outbreak inspections.
The audit also found that ESDC did little to meet commitments it had made to improve living conditions for temporary migrant farm workers, including to establish minimum accommodation requirements and bolster its inspection processes. While these commitments were reiterated during the pandemic the audit found “no evidence that it had done either of these things.”
Among the findings in the report were that, when conducting inspections of compliance with mandatory requirements for basic living conditions — such as running water, occupancy level and absence of health and safety risks in workers’ housing, the ESDC “collected no information in almost all cases but found employers compliant.” Inspections were done virtually and were to include photos and interviews with employers and workers. In cases where there was evidence that employers might not be following the rules (15 per cent of inspections) there was no challenge or followup with employers by ESDC.
With regard to outbreak inspections in 2021, 60 per cent “did not contain enough information to determine whether sick or symptomatic workers were provided with separate accommodations in order to isolate as required” and “about 80 per cent of those we reviewed also sat inactive for at least one to two months, by which point workers’ isolation periods had long passed.”
The report states, “We found that about 60 per cent of the outbreak inspections we examined were missing the information that the inspection processes required (such as photos of workers’ isolation space and confirmation of isolation through interviews) to determine whether employers provided conditions that allowed workers to properly isolate.”
According to the report, this was because inspectors did not interview the workers in isolation to confirm their conditions, have photos of isolation accommodations to verify workers had a private bathroom and bedroom, or show that there was followup when employers submitted photos that showed non-compliance. In at least two cases it was found that workers who tested positive for COVID-19 remained in shared accommodations with non-positive workers.
In post-quarantine inspections they found that in 93 per cent there was little if any information on workers’ accommodations and in 84 per cent no photos were collected as required by virtual inspection procedures. As well, in 81 per cent of interviews with employers and 68 per cent of interviews with workers no questions were asked about workers’ accommodations. In spite of the fact that ESDC did not have the evidence needed, every single employer was found compliant.
The findings of the investigators led to the report’s conclusion that ESDC inspections were poorly executed and provided little assurance that temporary foreign workers in Canada’s agricultural sector were protected. As well, the situation worsened in 2021, and no progress was made on prior commitments to address long-standing concerns with workers’ living conditions.
The Auditor General’s report makes a number of recommendations with which ESDC has agreed, as was the case with the recommendations made in December 2020. Once again ESDC and the Minister have said they agree and will “do better.”
But the problem remains that Canadians have no means to hold government officials to account for crimes committed against the people. That is a problem that demands a solution.
(Workers’ Forum, posted January 26, 2022)