Migrant farm workers tend the fields in Norfolk County in southwestern Ontario. COVID struck migrant workers hard and aggravated many of the issues they already face. Photo by Michael Swan

Post-COVID, migrant worker issues remain

  • May 15, 2022

This will be a better summer for migrant workers on Canadian farms, but only because local health authorities have become better at identifying and controlling COVID-19 outbreaks and not because Canada has addressed fundamental issues that made COVID into a rolling disaster across farm country the last two summers, says Connie Sorio.

“None of the, I would say historical and long-standing problems that have been there — the flaws and the shortcomings of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program — have actually even been mentioned in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sorio, Migrant Justice Co-ordinator for the ecumenical social justice organization Kairos, told The Catholic Register.

COVID was bad on farms. A Western University study released in February found nine workers in Ontario died in 2021, the second summer of the pandemic. Some workers died while isolating after a positive test and some were unable to access emergency medical help through the 911 system because of language barriers, researchers found. But the reason COVID was bad on farms has everything to do with a fundamentally unjust system that ties temporary foreign workers to specific employers and offers no clear pathway to permanent residency status, Sorio said.

“The pandemic has actually surfaced, if not aggravated, the already existing problems that exist in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” Sorio said.

Kairos has been contracted by the federal government to monitor, report and advocate for migrant farm workers in southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick. The ecumenical social justice organization’s Catholic backers are Development and Peace-Caritas Canada and the Canadian Religious Conference, which represents Canada’s nuns, brothers and religious order priests.

Sorio manages the government-funded Kairos program with the Migrant Worker Support Centre in Bradford, Ont. Employment and Social Development Canada will begin roundtable hearings on the future of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program with employer and labour groups in June.

“Pressure must be exerted on the government to inspect the farms and to disqualify repeat offenders,” said Peter Ciallella, an advisor with the Centre for Migrant Workers’ Solidarity in Simcoe, Ont. “I know farms that have been reported (for housing and safety violations) in the recent past and still receive workers under the same circumstances. Service Canada informed us that once an investigation has been conducted the conclusions are not made public. Privacy issues. I would like to see these farms publicly acknowledged for their shortcomings.”

Ciallella doesn’t want to tar all the farm employers with the same brush.

“We should celebrate and praise the farms that go above and beyond when it comes to the care of their migrant farm workers,” he said in an email.

An attempt to get at the problem via the boardroom had a strong showing but came up short at the Loblaw Companies Ltd. annual general meeting May 5. A motion proposed by the British Columbia Teachers Federation Salary Indemnity Fund asking for an independent human rights assessment of how Loblaw operations affect migrant workers in the company’s supply chains garnered 12 per cent of shareholder votes. These kinds of motions typically garner less than five per cent of votes. The 12-per-cent showing came despite advice against the motion by influential shareholder proxy advisory firms ISS and Glass Lewis. Sustainalytics, a firm that specializes in ESG (environment, social and governance) analysis, recommended shareholders vote for the independent human rights assessment.

The Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), which co-ordinated the Loblaw resolution on migrant workers, wonders why the corporation would claim to follow high global standards regarding worker rights and still resist an audit of what’s going on at farms that stock grocery shelves.

“It causes us to question whether the company understands the urgency of human rights issues within its supply chains,” SHARE’s director of shareholder advocacy said in a release before the vote.

When they want to, churches can be effective advocates for migrant farm workers, Sorio said.

“The Diocese of Hamilton, for example, particularly in Burford (Ont.) and that area has been very, very responsive,” she said. “And also very vocal — critical of the shortcomings and lack of protection for the workers. They’re very effective.”

But that doesn’t mean that all churches are acting on Pope Francis’ clear priority of care and accompaniment for migrants and refugees.

The Vatican’s Economics task force, within the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, has urged governments to act on migrant worker rights.

“The Church and other religious communities could send a strong, clear message about labour and its dignity,” the task force wrote early in the pandemic. “Our failure to regulate migrants, seasonal workers, caregivers and domestic workers exposes them to great health and economic risks. It is also very shortsighted — crops will go to waste if there is no one to harvest or process them. This will result in food scarcity and the lack of basic necessities in many countries.”

“People are afraid of change, especially if it’s a radical change and especially if it touches on vested interests,” said Sorio. “Pope Francis, yes, he’s very good at providing this direction… But setting priorities would not mean anything if it’s not being followed through.”

The radical measure that would really change things for temporary foreign workers would be a clear pathway to permanent residence status, said Sorio.

“There should be political will within the government to make sure that workers labouring in our fields and in all our industries and sectors are provided a clear pathway to become permanent residents,” she said.

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