The recent deaths of three migrant workers in Canada from COVID-19 have once again shed light on the horrific abuse and exploitation of workers under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Packed like sardines into overcrowded bunkhouses and workplaces with little regard for their health and no rights or protections, migrant workers have contracted COVID-19 at a far higher rate than the rest of the population. Far from being a new phenomenon, the situation is part of the long saga of Canadian capitalism killing migrant workers for the sake of profit.
The three men killed were farm workers from Mexico employed in Windsor-Essex County and Norfolk County in Ontario: 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero who died on May 30, 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos who died on June 5, and 55-year-old Juan López Chaparro, a father of four, who died on June 20. Additional workplace outbreaks affecting temporary foreign workers have come to light across the country. On May 4, the Cargill meat processing plant in Aldersyde, Alberta reopened despite having more than 900 COVID-19 cases at the time and despite opposition from the union. The majority of the workers at this facility are migrants, and many are temporary foreign workers.
On June 1, 125 out of 207 Mexican workers at the same large agricultural operation that Juan López Chaparro had worked for, Scotlynn Group, tested positive. There, seven workers had been admitted to hospital by June 1, four of whom were released. Three weeks later, there were 199 positive cases among the workers from Mexico and 18 cases among others associated with the farm. Three migrant workers were in hospital and two were in intensive care.
Following the deaths, the Mexican government refused to send any more workers until health and safety concerns were addressed. Mexican workers make up half of all temporary foreign workers employed in agriculture in Canada. Due to Canada’s reliance on this labour, the Trudeau Liberals scrambled to repair diplomatic ties with Mexico and assure everyone that workers under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program are safe.
After assurances from the Canadian government, the Mexican government agreed to resume sending Mexican workers. However, despite this resolution, there are no timelines in the agreement between the two governments which would hold the Canadian government to its commitments to temporary foreign workers. Also, the commitments are only described as “short-term measures” and the federal government indicated that it is exploring “other options.”
The reports of shocking conditions have forced politicians to comment, and even pro-business Ontario Premier Doug Ford admonished employers for not complying with the province’s COVID-19 guidelines, saying, “I’m going to tell it the way it is: farmers just aren’t co-operating.”
Canadian agriculture runs on migrant exploitation
While Canadian media and politicians often portray the country as a multicultural society providing equality and human rights to all, the treatment of migrants under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program tells a different story. In 2017 there were 550,000 temporary workers in Canada making up 15.5 per cent of all workers in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries. In Ontario alone, foreign workers made up 41.6 per cent of all agricultural workers. In Quebec, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia, they made up over 30 per cent of all agricultural workers.
These workers arrive on a visa that is tied to one employer, so that they cannot leave their place of employment regardless of any abuse that they may face. They have no pathway to permanent residency or citizenship, despite some temporary foreign workers returning to Canada year after year, often for decades. Employers exert significant control over their physical movement, often prohibiting them from leaving the farms they work at, and from interacting with the local community.
Canadian agriculture relies on this exploitation in order to profit. On March 18, soon after the Canadian Government announced border closures to contain COVID-19, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), which represents big agribusinesses in Canada, lobbied for an exception to the rule for temporary foreign workers, noting, “In 2018, the $2.4 billion in farmgate fruit and vegetable sales would largely not have been produced without access to this critical labour source. Meanwhile, many grain producers would not be able to plant their crops without labour certainty, leaving farmers unable to produce their products and potentially losing long-term viability for future production.”
On March 21, the CPMA won its exemption, and acknowledged temporary foreign workers as “essential to the agriculture industry.”
Essential work, disposable workers
Despite being praised for being “essential” by Canadian industry and politicians alike, in reality temporary foreign workers are treated by both the bosses and their political representatives as disposable. The exploitative and cruel conditions they face have been documented for decades, and the pandemic has merely exacerbated them.
Initially, the federal government tried to present itself as tough on employers who broke COVID-19 safety measures. It threatened to impose fines of up to $1 million and claimed that employers could be named publicly for violations, and banned from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. However, there were cracks in the plan from the beginning.
Service Canada said that inspections would be done “virtually/remotely,” that they would conduct phone interviews with workers, and that the employers would have to provide photos of accommodations and proof of adequate cleaning supplies. Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, explained flaws in the government’s plan: “How do you ensure on video that workers are sleeping two metres apart?… Or that the kitchen is big enough for two metres?… There’s no way for the government to directly contact the workers, so the way they have to do it is they have to tell the employer to tell the employee to talk to them, usually with the employer hovering in the background behind them.”
A recent report by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), titled “Unheeded Warnings: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada,” exposes the realities faced by temporary foreign workers during the pandemic and is based on complaints submitted by 180 migrant workers on behalf of 1,162 workers.
Temporary foreign workers, like others arriving from abroad, are subject to mobility restrictions and must complete a 14-day quarantine period. However, the conditions that workers live in during the 14-day period are completely up to the whims of the employer. For instance, employers are not required to provide food during the 14-day quarantine period. Some workers reported having no option but to break quarantine to buy groceries in the community, or starve. MWAC received 539 complaints from workers who reported inadequate access to food.
In the context of the pandemic, the living conditions of temporary foreign workers are particularly dangerous. A worker at Scotlynn Group, a workplace now experiencing a major outbreak with a 77 percent infection rate, said that he and other workers were placed in a bunkhouse where toilets and kitchens were communal and workers slept 6 or 8 to a room, making it impossible to physically distance. At Scotlynn, there are six bunkhouses occupied by 221 workers from Mexico, almost 37 workers to a house. Dr. Wajid Ahmed, Medical Officer of Health for Windsor-Essex County, explained,”Unfortunately, because of the way they are housed or what their accommodation looks like, they spread it to pretty much everyone who lives in the same house.”
Despite the clear danger to workers caused by the virus in these overcrowded conditions, Ontario’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board has sided with the agricultural industry. It recently struck down a regulation in the Haldimand-Norfolk region which limited bunkhouses to three workers during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. Haldimand-Norfolk was the only region to have such a limit and the tribunal found the limit was “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” Agricultural companies had complained that the restrictions put them at a competitive disadvantage to businesses in other regions. Of course, their profits were deemed more important than the lives of their workers.
These dangerous conditions are not limited to the bunkhouses. Workers have reported a complete absence of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job, even when workers are “stacked in close proximity” in areas such as greenhouses. MWAC received 160 complaints reporting conditions where it was impossible to maintain social distancing.
Bosses are also using the pandemic and resulting labour shortages as an excuse to increase the intensity of work. While newly arrived workers are in quarantine, those who arrived earlier in the season are made to work longer hours to cover for their quarantined coworkers, without being paid overtime. The report by MWAC revealed that “as a result of understaffing, asparagus harvesters report working between 16 and 17 hours a day, six days a week. At a grape and peach farm in Niagara, 12 workers reported putting in 63 hours a week, working seven days straight, for four consecutive weeks while their coworkers were shut out of the country due to travel restrictions.” As a result of the increased intensity imposed by employers, workers also reported increased injuries.
If this wasn’t enough, employers are also using the pandemic as an excuse to ramp up surveillance and control of their workers. MWAC communiciated with 205 workers who reported severe restrictions on their mobility which cut them off from the outside world. Employers prevented them from sending money to family back home, from buying credit for their cell phones so that they could call their loved ones, and from buying food and other necessities. The MWAC says that “209 migrant workers reported increased intimidation, surveillance and threats from employers often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols. Private security guards were posted at bunkhouses, and workers told they would be turned over to the police for failing to follow employer orders. Many migrant workers reported employers treating them worse than in previous years.”
Workers are afraid to report these conditions or complain about injuries because they face reprisal from their employers and can be “blacklisted”—sent home and not brought back in the future—if they complain, cutting them and their families off from much-needed income. The precarity of these workers almost precludes them being able to form unions to improve their pay and working conditions.
Good enough to work, good enough to stay
From long-term care homes to meat packing plants, to the fields of large agricultural operations, COVID-19 has found the weakest points in capitalist society and has hit the most vulnerable the hardest. While some can work from home, this is not the case for temporary foreign workers, immigrant workers, and many in the service sectors who are forced to risk infection in order to feed themselves and their families.
Canadian workers do not benefit from the abuse and exploitation of temporary foreign workers. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program exists to satisfy the appetite of the Canadian bosses for cheap, exploitable labour which is made vulnerable through a deliberately precarious immigration status. Canadian industry profits handsomely from the manufactured vulnerability of temporary foreign workers and, by paying one section of the working class less and subjecting them to unacceptable conditions, drives down wages and conditions for all workers.
The bosses also use racism to make migrants the scapegoats for problems in society that the bosses themselves are responsible for: cuts to social services, falling wages, lay-offs, and an inadequate response to COVID-19 which has left over 8,500 dead and has resulted in over 100,000 confirmed infections in Canada alone. The enemy of Canadian workers is not planting asparagus on Ontario farms, but is making deals in the boardrooms of industry and government.
Temporary foreign workers contribute more to society than the bankers on Bay Street or their friends on Parliament Hill. The mistreatment of temporary foreign workers must end and these workers must have equal rights. They should not experience the pervasive threat of black-listing and deportation if they demand better conditions, or be tied by restrictive visas to employers who abuse them. In order for these workers to be able to organize, to link up with the broader workers’ movement, and to fight for their rights, temporary foreign workers must be given full rights and permanent residency on arrival. This way, the bosses can no longer use the precariousness of migrant labour as a tool to hyper-exploit this labour and drive down conditions for all workers.
In order to achieve this, the labour movement must stand united against all attempts by the capitalists and their politicians to use racism and xenophobia to divide us. A Canadian worker has infinitely more in common with a Mexican worker than they have with Doug Ford, Justin Trudeau, or the owners of large agricultural businesses. It is in the interest of all workers to fight for decent working conditions and wages for all, against racism and xenophobia, and to unite against the capitalist system that profits off of exploitation.
Good enough to work, good enough to stay!
Scrap all racist immigration and asylum controls!
End the Temporary Foreign Worker program!
Workers’ unity is the way to defeat the racists and the conditions that breed racism!