Covid-19 makes a bad situation worse for agricultural migrant workers in Canada

A migrant farm worker picks grapes in Canada’s Niagara region. Migrant agricultural workers in Canada face poor working and living conditions, and risk of deportation. This situation has worsened over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. (UFCW )

Maria Lopez begged to get time off to go to church for Christmas. She had worked for months as a packer in a greenhouse in Ontario, Canada without a single day off, living in vermin-infested bunk beds in a shed with seven other workers. At night she was too exhausted to even Skype her children back home in the Philippines. All she wanted to do was go to church, and to send money back to her family for Christmas, but her employer said no. They said no to overtime, they said no to pay for an entire day’s work if the quota wasn’t met, they said no to any time off. One day Lopez said “enough is enough” and is now speaking out about the conditions she was enduring: “I know that I am not born here in Canada, that I am just a foreign worker, but I am a human.”

Canada ties migrant workers to their employers through specific visas, which facilitates exploitative conditions on farms, greenhouses and food factories. According to a 2020 report by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the Agriculture Workers Alliance, “Canada has seen a continuous expansion of the migrant and temporary foreign workforce [in] agriculture under federal programs that deliver migrant workers to employers, and then essentially abandon them to fend for themselves.” In 2012, the Canadian government issued 39,700 permits for migrant farm workers; by 2019, that number was 72,000.

The situation of agricultural workers in Canada belies the progressive reputation of the country and has implications across the Americas as part of international food and migration networks, as a public health crisis, and as part of both Canadian and US food supply.

Jim Stanford, Canada’s top labour economist, tells Equal Times: “Migrant workers in Canada face exploitation, terrible working and living conditions, and risk of deportation. These issues became especially acute during the Covid-19 pandemic. Migrant farm workers face severe risks of contagion, made worse by sub-standard living arrangements. But fear of discharge and removal from Canada limited their ability to speak out about these problems. Several migrant workers have died of Covid in Canada.

Most of the richest farmland in Canada, including where Maria Lopez works, is located in the southern strip of the country – which is more populated and has a better climate – just across the border from the United States. Sarah Tabour is a USA-based scientist and expert in agricultural labour who has done extensive work on the ways in which North American ideas about family farms as rural and pastoral belies the reality of farms as capitalist enterprises exploiting workers. She tells Equal Times:

“There’s this widespread assumption that the US and Canada are fundamentally different, and they’re just not…[.] In the US, a lot of farm workers started organising in ways that aren’t unions so the anti-union laws don’t apply to them [The Coalition of Immokalee Workers being a good example]. That’s why there are all the immigration raids on meat plants. There are enough workers to actually mount a serious labour action, so the owners call ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and clean the place out.” In Canada as well, precarious immigration status combined with anti-union laws makes it hard for workers to speak up.

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Violating the rights of more than 100,000 agricultural workers

Back in 2010, the International Labour Organization (ILO) challenged Canada and Ontario for its law regarding agricultural workers. Specifically, agricultural workers are forbidden to organise, especially in unions, by national and various provincial labour codes. This has been found by the ILO to violate the human right to free association, and also to be in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Santiago Escobar is a national representative with UFCW, a union that organises agricultural workers in the US and in Canada. He says that not much has changed in the decade since the ILO judgement and that Ontario is guilty of violating the human rights of more than 100,000 migrant and domestic agricultural workers. He says that this – and the fact that agricultural workers are not covered by most parts of the labour code – means that workers are pressured to work long hours, including at weekends, and that he has personally met many farm workers who have been working for more than six months straight without a single day off.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Canada’s largest federation of organised labour, says about the ILO ruling: “The federal government must work with the provincial government to proactively provide more labour and human rights protection for migrant workers who are vulnerable to employer and labour broker abuse and exploitation. We cannot have an underclass of temporary workers in Canada.”

In the province of Quebec, which is largely French-speaking and has a stronger union culture, Escobar says that UFCW has been able to unionise more than 800 workers from Spanish-speaking countries. The union has also been able to help workers get some premium pay during the pandemic, stop having to deal with systemic harassment and abuse, as well as see improvements to living conditions. But in other provinces workers continue to face labour abuses with few legal protections.

Lopez says that in her work packing in a greenhouse “is too hot, especially in the summertime. There was a time when I was working around August, I suffered nose bleeding and suffocating anxiety because it was so hot and humid. We have chemicals and there is no proper gear and I’ve been suffering from skin disease from the reaction of the chemicals.”

In December, UFCW posted a video on Facebook of a group of agricultural workers being berated. In the video, which was secretly filmed by a farm labourer, several scared workers watch silently as their supervisor swears and throws tomatoes at their feet for cutting them in a manner that he considers to be improper. Even more chilling is the fact that, for the sake of a dozen damaged tomatoes, the supervisor threatens to dock five days of pay from the workers.

Bad conditions for farm workers exacerbates the pandemic for everybody

The Covid-19 crisis has illuminated the existing difficulties faced by migrant workers. Chris Ramsaroop is an organiser with Justicia For Migrant Workers (J4MW), which works mainly in Southern Ontario. He tells Equal Times: “The conditions that existed prior to Covid continue to exacerbate the pandemic. These conditions include congregate housing, deplorable living conditions, and an absence of real oversight. In the absence of real regulation the temporary foreign worker program accentuates and heightens the vulnerabilities that workers might have. It’s a combination of restricted or precarious immigration status coupled with precarious working conditions.”

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J4MW says that over 1780 temporary foreign workers have tested positive in Ontario, but because of under-reporting, Ramsaroop estimates that the real number is probably more than 3,000: “From the start of the pandemic to now we haven’t seen any improvement in conditions. Workers continue to get sick with Covid while the employers continue to prioritise production, no matter the consequence to human lives.”

Juan (not his real name) is from Mexico and has been working in Canada for four years. He tells Equal Times that it is impossible to social distance at home or work, as he lives in a house with 13 people (all farm labourers) who are picked up every morning in an old school bus that should seat 40 people but squeezes in 80 farm workers. He says that many of his co-workers are suffering from Covid symptoms but are afraid to say anything because “they fear being sent back home. This is a racist farm”.

Ramsaroop says that J4MW has been involved in delivering food boxes for workers, as many of them do not have access to fresh food. He says that some employers have been using Covid-19 as an excuse to keep workers trapped on the farms, forcing them to buy food at inflated prices from their employers.

Escobar, from UFCW, says that as well as the physical dangers, the mental health of migrant workers is being adversely affected by the pandemic because of the stress of worsening working conditions. He says that he knows of a migrant worker who tried to kill himself in a greenhouse. Maria Lopez was diagnosed with PTSD from her experiences as a worker on an Ontario farm.

Economist Jim Stanford adds that these workers are a critical part of the Canadian economy: “Migrant workers play a vital role in the food supply chain in Canada, and the pandemic has highlighted for Canadians how important that role is. Hopefully, this translates into broad support for measures to provide basic rights and protections for migrant workers here.”

Advocates and workers are asking for open work permits not tied to specific employers, the ability to unionise, better wages, an end to abuse, and safer living conditions. This is what Maria Lopez wants too: “I’m hoping and praying for us foreign workers that came here. I hope this employer will stop their animal behaviours to us. And I hope the government will give us more rights here to stay here, to protect us, and to be equal to everybody else.”

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