‘Impossible’ housing conditions worsen COVID-19 cases among migrant workers
‘Impossible’ housing conditions worsen COVID-19 cases among migrant workers
By Marites N. Sison
The plight of thousands of Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers and temporary foreign workers — a number of them Filipinos — has been thrown into sharp relief by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Several outbreaks involving meat processing plants in Alberta, and farms in Ontario and British Columbia have exposed the unsafe working and living conditions that migrant advocates say make these workers more vulnerable to Covid-19.
To date, at least 949 Cargill workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died, including Armando Sallegue, who was visiting his son, a Filipino employee at the plant. More than 1,500 other infections have also been linked to the facility. Outbreaks have likewise been reported in another meat processing plant, JBS, in Brooks, Alta., where at least 650 workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and one has died.
Workers for the Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta. have told news reporters about the impossibility of physical distancing because they work elbow-to-elbow.
Most of these workers also live in tight shared quarters, where two or more people stay per room, not because of their cultural preferences — as Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has suggested — but because it’s what they can afford, said Marco Luciano, director of Migrante Canada.
“They either live with a kababayan or with their families and pay their share. It’s the cheapest they could get. There’s no other way to survive and send money back home,” said Luciano in an interview.
In Ontario, 49 migrant workers and employees at a greenhouse produce near Kent Bridge tested positive for Covid-19 last April, a situation that was totally preventable, said Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers. “For the past couple weeks, we’ve been trying to sound the alarm about the spread of pandemics on farms,” Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers told London Free Press. He noted that seasonal farm workers often live in “crammed and confined conditions,” such as communal bunkhouses.
“Their housing conditions constitute the greatest threat to these workers,” wrote University of Windors professors nd researchers Tanya Basok and Glynis George, in an article for The Conversation. “Forced to share their living quarters with many other workers, the migrants will be hard-pressed to maintain the social distance required to contain the spread of COVID-19.”
About 60,000 temporary foreign workers arrive in Canada each year, 25,000 of whom work the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Pogram (SAWP). The program began in 1966 in response to farm labour shortages in Ontario.
Workers typically spend about eight months a year planting, cultivating and harvesting crops — low-paying, back-breaking work that most Canadians are unwilling to do. Workers mostly came from Jamaica, the Caribbean and Mexico, until 10 years ago, when the program expanded hiring to other countries, including the Philippines.
Basok and George, who have been studying the situation of farm workers in Ontario, noted that “In 2017, Leamington’s 243 field and greenhouse parcels required on- or off-site accommodation for migrant farm workers.” Many of these off-site houses “have been illegally converted to boarding houses for migrants. Safety of these houses has been a concern for the municipality,” they added.
For decades now, advocates and unions for seasonal agricultural workers and temporary foreign workers have been urging federal and provincial governments to address these unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.
Several other studies have also put a spotlight on the issue. In 2006, the North-South Institute (NSI) conducted a review of the SAWP and noted that “overcrowding was reported as a concern on some farms and some housing units lacked indoor plumbing for water, washing and toilet facilities.”
Migrant workers “often live in small bunk houses with a large number of workers crowded into a confined space, or live in a house of the employer,” according to another study, Seasonal Agricultural Workers in Canada: Understanding the Socio-Political Issues, by W. Zachary Marshall. Substandard conditions include “instances of 11 individuals sharing a single bathroom, to housing that lacks heating during the winter or air conditioning during the summer,” Marshall said, citing a 2014 study by Kerry Preibisch, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph.
Under guidelines issued by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), employers must provide “suitable accommodations” to the worker, including separate accommodation for women workers, without cost. They must also provide cooking utensils, fuel and facilities, and “provide the necessary number of stoves and refrigerators in order that all workers may prepare their meals in a timely manner at the end of the work day.” The guidelines also state that such accommodation “must meet with the approval of the appropriate government authority responsible for health and living conditions in the province where the worker is employed.”
What “suitable accommodation” means is, however, not clearly defined.
But Luciano said, at the minimum, it should mean one that respects the municipal fire and living space code, has one person per room, with adequate heating and running water.
He also said not only do some farms not provide decent homes for their workers, they even charge them for rent, as well as transportation from home to farm. “They try make money from migrant workers. The contract is not being followed.”
ESDC guidelines also call for seasonal housing inspections, but this, too, has been problematic, said Luciano. “The problem is there’s no regulatory body that visits these houses. The problem in Alberta, at least, is that it’s a complaint-based system. The only way an inspector comes if somebody complains.”
However, the power imbalance between employer and worker discourages complaints from being made, he said. “If you’re a foreign worker whose status depends on your employer, you’ll be afraid to complain. Workers are very vulnerable.”
Luciano noted that while Mexico and Canada have a more comprehensive agreement regarding recruitment of farm workers, this does not necessarily ensure they have better protection. “If [Mexican] workers complain, they get blacklisted [by their government]. They can’t come back.”
Marshall also noted this in his study, saying, “the key problem with housing is that there is little to no consequences for providing substandard accommodations….Even when workers recognize the subpar conditions that they are living in, it is a risk to report these conditions.”
The absence of a regulatory body and a lack of coordinated approach among federal and provincial government agencies — each responsible for different aspects of the TFW and SAFW programs — makes the problem intractable, said Luciano. “That’s the problem, there are different agencies doing different things at their convenience. It’s like a hot potato that’s being passed around. There’s a lot of red tape and holes that even advocates like us get frustrated.”
On May 11, the Toronto Star reported on another factor affecting the lack of a national housing standard: the agriculture lobby.
“The national standard for migrant worker housing has not been implemented — despite a study commissioned by the federal government that found ‘gaps in the housing inspection process’ and an ‘extremely wide variation of what is deemed an acceptable housing standard,’” said the Star. It reported that “in consultations initiated by the federal government in 2018 on updating migrant worker programs, agricultural groups including Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture pushed back against stricter auditing of living and working conditions.”
Earlier, in a press statement issued January 11, 2018, ESDC had announced the federal government’s commitment “to ensure the rights and freedoms of temporary foreign workers are protected, including their right to safe and adequate housing.” It announced, among other things, the launch of “the Primary Agriculture Review which includes a National Housing Study with the goal of establishing a cohesive Temporary Foreign Worker Program housing standard across Canada.” It also vowed to conduct “more on-site inspections to verify firsthand that the working and housing conditions of temporary foreign workers meet program requirements.”
The NSI research had noted that “inspections were not always carried out before the workers arrived, when it may be up to the sending government agents alone to approve or reject the housing.” [Under EDSC guidelines, foreign governments that send foreign workers to Canada are allowed to inspect these houses, but they rarely do so.]
It also noted concerns “regarding the kind of inspections that are undertaken (for example, health inspections do not cover fire safety or building standards), and the number of inspectors available, as well as jurisdictional issues.”
As Covid-19 gained a foothold in Canada, the federal government introduced new regulations regarding housing inspections during the pandemic, which Parliament approved April 20, 2020. It gave Service Canada the authority to conduct an inspection “with or without prior notice,” to verify an employer’s compliance, including “within the first 14 days of the temporary foreign worker’s arrival.” These inspections, however, are to be conducted virtually/remotely.
The ESDC also said employers must ensure that “workers are isolated separately from other workers who are not isolating or under quarantine; accommodation for workers in quarantine at the same time, must enable the workers to remain at least 2 metres away from others; private accommodations, for example bedroom and bathroom, is provided to a worker who develops any signs of symptoms of COVID-19 and cleaning products for the purpose of cleaning and disinfecting the accommodations regularly are provided to workers who are in isolation or quarantine.
A week before the new regulations kicked in, the federal government announced $50 million in funding or about $1,500 per worker, as requested by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA), to cover the cost of wages or cost of space while they are in the 14-day mandatory quarantine before they can go work.
Whether these regulations are being followed, or whether inspections are taking place remains to be seen.
Keith Currie, first vice president of the CFA told iPolitics that “farmers are prepared to do whatever is necessary to maintain Canada’s foreign labour force — including following the protocols set in place by the government.”
Advocates for migrant workers said, however, that in the absence of enforcement mechanisms, it would be difficult to ensure that these guidelines are strictly followed. A video circulated in May by Justicia Justice for Migrant Workers, shows how employers have installed makeshift, far-from-decent living conditions for some migrant workers during Covid-19.
“These guidelines must be mandatory requirements, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure employer compliance must be established,” said a letter sent by the Migrant Rights Network to various officials, including Cindy Evans, director of the Public Health Agency of Canada, and Elisha Ram, ESDC associate assistant deputy minister.
Luciano, meanwhile, pointed to the inordinate control employers have on workers. Workers really can’t afford to say no if they’re told to work right away, instead of being in quarantine upon arrival. “It’s a choice between getting Covid-19 or getting deported.”
He expressed hope, however, that Canadians and the world in general will realize the sacrifices that farm workers make not just for the sake of their families, but for Canada in general. “We are dependent on them to ensure our food security. Without them, we won’t eat because most Canadians wouldn’t want to work in the kind of situation they’re in.” Migrant advocates said the pandemic has shown that these workers are essential — enough for the government to exclude them from the country’s pandemic travel ban.
Not only are these workers critical to Canada’s food supply, they also contribute to the economy, studies have underscored. They pay taxes, and purchase goods and services in the communities they work in. And yet, Luciano lamented, “we treat them badly.” Employers, in particular, said Luciano, need to remember that “these are people, not machines,” and to consider “people’s health and safety first, before profit.”