Written by Katherine Lay, 3L, University of Victoria, Faculty of Law
Migrant workers are a key, but often ignored, part of Canadian society. Over 50,000 migrant workers come to Canada each year, and agricultural migrant labour is largely responsible for getting food on our plates. In return, workers are often treated poorly by employers and the Canadian government alike – migrant workers often lack access to healthcare services, job security, and basic human rights protections. Many migrant workers come to Canada on visas that tie them to a specific employer, and will lose their visas and immigration status in Canada if they are no longer employed by them. This makes it difficult to escape situations of abuse, and makes the workers dependant on their employers for employment, housing, and the right to stay in Canada. In recent years, there have even been stories of domestic workers who have been kept in slave-like conditions, working long days and overtime for little to no pay, without the ability to leave their employer’s residence.
The poor conditions in which migrant workers are made to work and live have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, agricultural migrant workers have been coming to Canada for years through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), and are often required to live in housing provided by their employer, which may consist of bunk houses wherein up to forty workers may share a single shower. While such arrangements may be shocking in the best of times, they are exponentially more shocking in the current circumstances, as healthy and ill workers may still be made to live together, putting all workers at risk. Migrant workers are often already marginalized, and may not be familiar with Canadian law or their rights as workers, which leaves them vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. In April it was announced that $50 million in federal funding would be made available to farmers (up to $1500 per employee) to cover costs related to COVID-19, though the funding does not seem to have led to improved conditions for many workers. It also fails to recognize the high number of undocumented workers – estimated at 500,000 individuals – who do not qualify for any government supports or resources.
In Ontario alone, over 1,000 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and three workers – Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, and Juan López Chaparro– have died from the illness. Those who test positive may be reluctant to go to the hospital, as they are not usually covered by provincial healthcare programs. Workers may also be afraid of losing their jobs and their visas) and being sent to their home country if they take time off work due to illness. Recently, Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change released a report outlining the effects that COVID-19 has had on migrant workers, including a list of recommendations and calls for change. Among the recommendations are calls for the provision of personal protective equipment for all migrant workers during the pandemic; the suspension of work at farms that have had workers test positive for COVID-19; income support for all workers; and an increase in living standards and conditions for migrant workers. If no action is taken, the situation will only worsen, and more migrant workers will bear the cost.
Though they are often referred to as ‘temporary foreign workers,’ migrant workers often fill long-term positions in areas including agriculture, caregiving, health care, and construction. Despite filling a significant gap in the Canadian labour market, there is often no easy path for migrant workers to obtain permanent residency or Canadian citizenship. The temporary system requires migrants to re-apply for their visas in order to extend their stays, which may last for years. Organizations including Migrant Workers’ Centre, Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change, and Migrant Rights’ Network are fighting for migrant worker rights by demanding full immigration status (i.e. permanent residency) for all workers. The believe that by denying workers full status, the government is putting them in a precarious and vulnerable position, and is forcing workers to risk their lives to maintain their current temporary worker status. If migrant workers are granted permanent residency upon arrival in Canada, they will have the freedom to leave abusive employers and seek a new job without fear of being sent back to their country of origin.
The new full immigration status campaign is part of a recent increase in public pressure to recognize the rights of migrant workers, and provide them with more protections. Campaigns aimed directly at Prime Minister Trudeau call for migrant workers’ rights, and highlight the inadequacy of the current temporary foreign worker system. In June, Mexico’s Ambassador to Canada Juan José Gómez announced that Mexico would no longer allow Mexican workers to work at farms that do not observe proper COVID-19 rules and protocols. Canada and Mexico are now working together to improve housing conditions for migrant workers, which is the first in a long line of changes that must be made to provide migrant workers with the support they need.
There are many changes that need to be made to the current Canadian migrant worker system, from immigration policies and visas to housing conditions and government supports. The fact that the issue is gaining recognition among Canadian society is a good sign, and a step in the right direction. It is imperative that Canadians continue to push for migrant worker rights – without migrant workers, our society would not function, and it is about time we start treating them with the respect they deserve.
Katherine Lay, “Time for Change: Migrant Workers’ Rights in Canada” Canadian Law of Work Forum (July 24 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/?p=12902