Agricultural workers left vulnerable and unsupported amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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By Samrah Mian

The poor working conditions experienced by agricultural workers and the labrynthian nature of the government agencies charged with handling their affairs created an ideal setting for the early outbreaks of COVID-19 among groups of temporary foreign workers and the ever-increasing infection rate experienced by this population. Despite relying on migrant workers to bring food to our tables during this pandemic, the Canadian government has refused to give them status as permanent residents.

Canada receives over 40,000 farm workers every year through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, many of whom have returned to Canada annually for years. Besides a recently introduced pilot program that accepts a small minority of individuals, permanent residency is not an option given to these migrant agricultural workers, who are expected to work long hours for low pay. Advocates have long decried the crowded housing, economic exploitation, and unsafe work environments commonly seen on farms employing agricultural workers.

These conditions have now exacerbated the spread of COVID-19. Hundreds of farm workers across Canada have tested positive, and two have lost their lives in the process of providing food to Canadian residents during the crisis. A few weeks ago, Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, and Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, succumbed to the illness. Health officials cited close living quarters as a factor in the growth in these outbreaks. The fact that agricultural workers are tied to their employers and lack permanent residency status is an equally huge component. Many employers have been unwilling to make accommodations for the health of workers and some even launched legal challenges against measures designed to protect workers in quarantine.

While infections are surging, testing centres for agricultural migrant workers are being closed in Ontario. Officials have cited low turn-out as a reason for the closures, but they’ve failed to account for the fears of farm workers, who hesitate to speak up to their employers for fear of reprisals or even deportation.

The recent deaths have prompted Mexico to stop sending temporary foreign workers to Canada even as Canadian farmers maintain that more workers are needed. Meanwhile, migrant workers who were still in their home countries when the pandemic started and weren’t able to come to Canada are excluded from emergency benefits and, therefore, unable to feed their families.

The quarantine of farm workers is also vastly different from what is experienced by others entering Canada. Incoming agricultural workers have been subjected to ‘prison-like’ mandatory quarantine, which at times extends beyond the recommended 14 days. However, of the workers who have fallen ill, most have contracted the virus after arriving in Canada. Despite this, workers have been stopped from grocery shopping, banned from riding their bikes outside, and denied entry into businesses. Others have been targets of racism.

Granting permanent residency to farm workers and other essential migrant workers will enhance their safety and security and recognize the contributions they have made over their many years of labour. While a permanent residency route was recently offered to asylum seekers working in healthcare in recognition of their efforts, farm workers and other essential migrant workers have been overlooked and excluded. The government should regularize the status of these workers and, in doing so, allow them to protect themselves from employers who disregard their health and well being. Denying them permanent residency leaves them vulnerable to these employers and, in turn, vulnerable to COVID-19.

You can show your support for agricultural workers by joining the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign calling on the Federal government to grant permanent residency to migrant workers.


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