Temporary foreign workers face barriers to safe housing and lack of COVID-19 safety precautions
By: Katie Lay
Temporary foreign workers have been deeply impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. Workers often live together in employer-provided housing, are driven to farms together in large groups, and work in close quarters. Recently, three workers in Ontario passed away from the virus: 31-year old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 24-year old Rogelio Munoz Santos, and 55-year old Juan Lopez Chaparro.
Many temporary foreign agricultural workers have work permits that tie them to a specific employer, which reduces the workers’ ability to speak out against abuse for fear of losing their employment and potentially immigration status in Canada. The result is that workers are often subjected to horrible working and living conditions, and may have no safe course of action to improve their living conditions. Migrant workers are often required to live in employer-provided housing, which means they are completely under the control of the employer.
Since many temporary foreign workers live in close quarters and are unable to isolate or follow social distancing guidelines, it comes as no surprise that they are at particular risk for contracting COVID-19. While some farms have implemented strict COVID-19 guidelines, many have not. Healthy and ill workers may be forced to share the same living quarters, and there have been allegations that employers have been intimidating workers through increased surveillance under the guise of implementing COVID-19 procedures.
Workers often live in bunkhouses that may house dozens of people, with multiple people sharing each room. One farm, Greenhill Produce, had 89 cases of COVID-19. One worker who contracted the virus said that he shared a room with six other people before the outbreak. Although Greenhill eventually did separate workers who tested positive from those who did not, the worker believes the separation could have happened sooner.
Employers have also used the outbreak as an excuse to increase the level of control they exercise over their employees. One way this has been done is by forcing more workers to live in the same quarters, as social distancing rules don’t apply to workers who also live together. The increase in people living together is undoubtedly putting the workers at a higher risk of contracting the virus, but workers may often be fearful of speaking out against employers as they may be punished or required to leave Canada.
There are also limited avenues to permanent residence in Canada for many migrant agricultural workers, other than a new government pilot program which has very restrictive criteria and is capped at a small number of applicants per year. Without permanent immigration status, migrant agricultural workers may face additional barriers to accessing healthcare services. Workers may not qualify for provincial health coverage depending on the province, and many workers may be hesitant to report injuries and illnesses to their employer for fear of repatriation. Lack of access to health services could mean that workers are unable to be treated for illnesses that they would otherwise be able to recover from, which is particularly important in the midst of a pandemic.
It is crucial that Canada takes steps to ensure a national minimum standard for migrant housing, and that provincial governments also implement additional health and safety protections for migrant workers. It is also important that all migrant workers have access to permanent resident status, so they can access healthcare and other services. Migrant workers are essential workers – it is time they are treated as such.