The plight of migrant workers in Ontario
Leaving families behind, hundreds of migrant workers move to Canada every year in hope of a better life. According to Mr. Santiago Escobar, the national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), about 8,000 temporary foreign workers and 2,000 undocumented workers are employed across 176 farms in Windsor-Essex County. Ontario accounts for 31.2 percent of the migrant workers in the agriculture sector.
As the global pandemic continues, thousands of displaced migrant workers in the Kingsville and Leamington area are at a higher risk, with almost 500 workers having fallen ill. Most of these low-wage immigrant workers come from impoverished, rural communities who bank on their wages to support their families back home.
A Latin-American man in his late twenties, moved to Canada in 2015 for a better future and to be able to provide for his family. The lack of opportunities in their home countries forces them to migrate for survival. Through a Spanish translator, Francisco said, “It is very tough here as I am all alone, away from my family. I have no support, other than the little guidance from union I’m a part of.”
Under the Canadian “temporary foreign worker programs,” the immigration status of migrant workers who come to Canada under the SWAP, which is Canada’s largest work abroad organization, is connected to their current employment status. This means that a worker upon getting fired or losing their job will be subject to getting deported. This creates an upper hand for the employer, oppressing and ruthlessly exploiting migrant workers. The people who protest against any violence or abuse are threatened with not only losing their jobs, but also their right to remain in Canada.
“Even while working inside the greenhouse, workers are exposed to pesticides. According to health Canada the re-entry time after spraying pesticides is at least 8-24 hours. It is very problematic to see people working in a greenhouse as someone goes around spraying pesticides,” said Escobar.
“I have had a very bad experience with my former employer and I do not wish anyone else to have to work with or witness it. I have faced bad housing conditions, management harassment, insults, and unhygienic living conditions to the extent that got me poisoned with pesticides at my place of work. I had been admitted to the hospital for a few days for which I received no compensation of any sort,” Francisco said.
According to a press release from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), an organization consisting of local advocacy groups, there have been several violations of workers’ rights. This may include issues of wage theft, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), limited space to socially distance at work and in the cramped up accommodations that the employers provide, along with their ability to compel and threaten these migrant workers due to their vulnerable legal status. They are often accommodated six to eight in a room of unsanitary bunkhouses or abandoned motels. Such unhygienic living conditions where cockroach and bedbug infestation is common, serves as perfect grounds for the breeding of highly contagious diseases.
“I cannot forget the time when I contracted the coronavirus. I was very scared and concerned not only about my health, but about the fact that this job is the only source of income to my family. However, by God’s grace my experience felt like a mild flu that healed in sometime,” Francisco said.
The government of Ontario has released a three-point plan for the Windsor-Essex County to tackle the spread of coronavirus in the greenhouses and farms. Under this plan, there will be rigorous on-site testing, more protective equipment afforded by the Employment Standards Act for the workers, and basic workplace compensation benefits like Canada Emergency Response Benefit grant for migrant workers who have earned at least $5,000 during the last 12 months. However, there are a large number of workers who have been in Canada only for a short period of time and thus may not qualify for the $5,000 earning mark.
Ontario government announced late June “positive asymptomatic workers can continue working as long as they follow the public health measures in their workplace.” This new policy was deemed necessary to maintain business operations in the sector of agriculture and other critical businesses. However, this may really backfire, further spreading among several worksites and worsening the COVID-19 hotspots.
“As a union we are currently demanding access to labor mobility that will allow all workers to have access to open work permits and flexible access to permanent residence, meaningful access to labor protection and support unions,” said Escobar.
He also added that workers must reach out and speak up against any abuse.
“You have rights, you should all be treated with respect regardless of your nationality or status. If you are facing any abuse, you can reach out to us at our toll free number. We will assist you with obtaining a open work permit.”