A report released in early December by the Auditor General (AG) has found that employers have failed to protect foreign agricultural workers from COVID-19. The report details at length how the federal government and employers have consistently allowed tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to be sent to dangerous and uninspected worksites. Canadian capitalism has blood on its hands. 

The AG report: “All employers were found compliant”

The AG report details the brutal working and living conditions faced by farm workers during the pandemic. Following an April 2020 amendment to temporary worker legislation, farms that employ TFWs must provide housing and wages to workers entering the country for their 14-day quarantine period, as well as offer drinking water, cleaning products, and separate accommodations for infected workers to ensure COVID safety measures can be followed on worksites and in housing. But even these minimal standards were rarely met by employers

Compliance is verified through inspections, 95 per cent of which were done virtually during the pandemic through photo and video evidence submitted to the government by employers. Although nearly all inspections were approved by the government in 2020 and 2021, the AG states that 88 per cent of these inspections were approved based on “poor quality evidence or no evidence”, and many of the inspections were backlogged and unfinished even after workers arrived at worksites. Even worse, at least 16 per cent of inspections found that employers were not compliant with safety measures, but government inspectors deemed them safe and acceptable anyway.

Many inspections revealed cramped living conditions—beds pushed together, single shared bathrooms for dozens of workers, improper ventilation—all of which promote the spread of COVID-19. Exact numbers on rates of infection are hard to find, but these conditions have led to mass outbreaks. One scandalous example is the infection of hundreds and death of three farm workers at Scotlynn Group in Ontario. It is clear  that farm workers have not been protected from COVID-19 in any meaningful way. Even after the federal government provided $16.2 million in funding last year to improve inspection quality, and doled out $142 million to cover the costs of quarantine accommodations, inspections continued to be mishandled. 

These statistics demonstrate how the Canadian government and bosses see migrant workers. Carla Qualtrough, the federal Minister of Employment, stated in a CBC article that “despite [their] efforts, [they] fell short”—but this is not true. The TFW program didn’t “fall short”—it has always functioned to exploit migrant workers and keep them vulnerable. The nightmare conditions that they’ve been forced to endure during the pandemic are the natural extension of the nightmare conditions that have always existed. Capitalists and the Canadian state will always be willing to overlook safety regulations and their own laws, allowing workers to be exploited, endangered, and even killed, as long as it means that production can continue and profits can be made. 

The TFW program legalizes the super-exploitation of migrant workers

The TFW program was originally framed as a temporary, small-scale measure to fill labour shortages in high-skilled positions. It allows for employers to hire workers from other countries, and bring them to Canada temporarily on work visas. Over the years it has undergone various reforms that have made it what it is now: a constant and essential source of cheap labour in many of the most exploitative sectors, especially in the agriculture, care-giving, and service sectors. The vast majority of these workers come to Canada from countries ravaged by imperialism, like the Philippines, Guatemala, and India. Between March 2020 and June 2021, over 79,000 workers arrived to work in the agriculture sector through the TFW program – among the highest numbers on record! 

TFWs have few rights in Canada and are one of the most exploited layers of workers. They are typically paid below minimum wage or by piecework, are subject to intimidation by bosses, and often deliberately isolated from outside communities. One widely read CBC article reported that many farm workers were entirely forbidden from leaving farms during 2020. Under the TFW program, a worker is only allowed to stay in Canada at the will of their employer. Challenging their bosses therefore carries the risk of deportation, and losing the income that many of their families in their home countries rely on.  Holding the threat of deportation over workers who try to defend their interests is the cowardly tactic used by the bosses to keep TFWs compliant and silent. Abuses of the TFW program and of workers have typically been presented as one-off events, but it is clear that abuse is inherent to the program. 

The blame for the TFW program cannot be levelled at this or that political party. Although it was implemented by the Harper Conservatives, the Liberals have actively chosen to not repeal it, because it serves the interests of capital.  When it is criticized, the TFW program is usually attacked by suggesting that TFWs are stealing “Canadian jobs” but this is not the problem. The issue with the TFW program is that it allows bosses to subject workers to sub-human levels of exploitation, which in turn lowers the bar for the conditions of all workers. We say: if these workers are good enough to work in Canada, if they are “essential to industry”, they should have the same rights as any other worker! No worker should have to lower their standards and accept poverty wages. The labour movement must make the protection of all workers a priority and stand strong against the bosses who try to divide us by our nationalities and visa statuses. 

Good enough to work, good enough to stay!

From long-term care facilities to Cargill meat-packing plants, many examples have proven that TFWs face increasingly dangerous working conditions with less pay and fewer protections. This is the very same fate faced by all workers under capitalism – even though the bosses are making record profits! From the bankers who paid themselves $18.8 billion in bonuses, to the Westons and Pattisons of the country who enriched themselves by $78 billion last year, the wealthiest have snatched up record profits while the vast majority of people have suffered. The very same capitalist leeches who exploit their workers in packing plants, grocery stores, farms, and transport hubs across the country applaud these workers for being essential – and reward them with layoffs and austerity. 

The bosses are taking advantage of the pandemic to attack workers across the board, and the most vulnerable will certainly not be spared. As the case of migrant workers shows, no level of exploitation is so bad that it can’t get worse. The governments of the bosses cannot be relied upon to defend the interests of workers at the best of times; there is no reason for them to be of any help to foreign workers. The only way to end the barbaric conditions faced by migrant workers is through a concerted struggle of the broader labour movement; a struggle that treats an injury to one as an injury to all.