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Trudeau Vows to Help After Two Migrant Workers Die From COVID-19. He's Late

A new report says the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated problems for migrant workers in Canada that have existed for years.
June 16, 2020, 1:37pm
Migrant farm workers in southern Ontario
Migrant farm workers pick cilantro at a southern Ontario farm that supports their desire to attain permanent residency. Photo by Jim Rankin (Toronto Star via Getty)

When migrant workers at a fruit and vegetable farm in Norfolk Country in southwestern Ontario first started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, Marcus said his employers did nothing.

“Fever, cough, chills. We kept expecting bosses to do something” like call in doctors or drive workers to the hospital, said Marcus, a migrant worker from Mexico who tested positive for COVID-19. He isn’t using his real name out of fear of losing his job.

On May 27—several days after workers first started feeling ill—one of Marcus’ colleagues was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed. Another colleague had to call a friend who lives off the farm and ask for them to call an ambulance, Marcus said.

“That’s how that worker got to the hospital. It was not thanks to the bosses,” Marcus told VICE with help from a translator.

It wasn’t until the following evening, after a day of work, that the employer paused operations and said everyone had to get tested. Of the 216 workers on the farm, 164 tested positive for COVID-19, with two requiring hospitalization.

Scotlynn Group, the company that owns the farm, did not respond to several VICE requests for comment when provided with a list of allegations made by their workers.

Scott Biddle, the president and CEO of Scotlynn Group, denied the allegations in a statement to CTV. An open letter from the company also says the farm has implemented COVID-19 measures, including enhanced cleaning.

The alleged problems aren’t unique to Scotlynn Group, nor are they new to the food and agriculture industry. According to a new report published last week by Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) and two migrant workers who spoke with VICE, many employers haven’t supplied migrant workers with tools to combat the virus, including hand sanitizer and physical distancing measures, and they didn’t help workers who said they were feeling ill. Then there’s the non-COVID-19 issues—racism, long work days, low pay—that have taken place for years.

In Ontario’s Essex-Windsor region, two migrant farm workers from Mexico, ages 31 and 24, died this month after contracting the coronavirus, prompting Mexico to say it won't send the approximately 5,000 workers waiting to come to Canada until there's an explanation for why the deaths occurred.

Hundreds of additional migrant and temporary foreign workers, most of whom are racialized, have tested positive for the virus across Canada since the pandemics started, including about 1,000 workers, three of whom died, at a Cargill meat-packing plant in southern Alberta.

MWAC’s scathing report on behalf of more than a thousand migrant workers in Canada details countless alleged abuses against workers at farms, including Scotlynn, such as poor living and working conditions, wage theft, racism, and too few precautions to protect workers from COVID-19.

"Working conditions in these farms are below inadequate."

According to Marcus, housing at the Norfolk farm is cramped, with at least 45 workers sharing one communal bathroom with eight toilets. Workers also don’t have easy access to the internet, making it difficult for them to connect to their families back home, he said.

Marcus also said he makes $14 per hour, but after he and his colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 started self-isolating, Scotlynn advertised $25 per hour for new workers.

In a letter shared on Facebook, the company said the wage increase is “in effort to maintain a secure food supply during unforeseen disruption.”

“Why can’t they pay migrant workers for the same work?” Marcus said.

Scotlynn Group did not respond when asked why they offered local workers more money.

Karen Cocq, the campaign coordinator with MWAC, told VICE her group has been saying for months that the pandemic would affect migrant farm workers disproportionately.

“We have known for a long time and have been sounding the alarm for a long time that housing and working conditions in these farms are below inadequate,” Cocq said, adding cramped living conditions and unsupportive leadership have created a breeding ground for the virus.

Speaking out risks job termination, homelessness, deportation, and blacklisting, she said.

COVID-19 gives employers an opportunity to further surveil and control the workers, she said.

“There were threats to call the police if workers didn’t stay in line, bringing in private security guards to surveil bunkers, trapping workers on farms even after quarantine was over, restricting mobility to buy groceries,” Cocq said.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly acknowledged the need to improve conditions for migrant workers and said that his government will explore ways to do so.

But solutions already exist, Cocq said, because migrant workers and advocates have been decrying the decrepit living conditions and harsh working environments for years.

Giving migrant workers permanent residency is the “easiest and most effective solution to this multilayered problem,” Cocq said, adding it would allow migrant workers to access the same rights enjoyed by Canadians.

Migrant worker contracts limit workers to one employer, so they can’t leave an abusive environment and find another job, Cocq said. With permanent residency migrant workers would be able to speak out, leave their workplace and find a new one, and demand higher pay and better living conditions.

Canadians farmers depend on about 60,000 migrant workers. More than one-quarter of all employees in crop production in 2017 were foreign workers, according to MWAC’s report, with migrant workers accounting for about 42 percent of agricultural workers in Ontario. In British Columbia, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, 30 percent of agricultural workers were migrants during the same year.

“We work and feed the people of this country,” a migrant worker named Damian says in the report. “I work here, I pay taxes, I should have a say. I would like to see a better offer on the table for seasonal migrant workers because we are not animals and we should be treated fairly.”

Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for Minister of Employment Carla Qualtrough, did not respond when asked if the federal government is considering giving migrant workers status.

Omar, a migrant worker from Jamaica who works at a southern Ontario farm and whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said his employer didn’t do much to support him and his colleagues during the pandemic.

"We are not animals and we should be treated fairly."

Government rules dictate that travellers arriving in Canada need to stay in quarantine for two weeks to avoid new COVID-19 cases, and bosses who depend on migrant workers have to pay staff during that time. Omar said when he and his colleagues arrived in April and started self-isolating, they got pocket money but bosses didn’t help the team with meals.

Instead, friends living outside of the farm had to help Omar’s team secure food, he said.

Eight workers share a small kitchen and bathroom with two toilets, Omar said. But despite living in close proximity to each other at a time when people are urged to maintain physical distance, Omar’s bosses didn’t provide workers with supplies—like hand sanitizer or gloves—that prevent virus contraction, he said.

“We aren’t treated right,” Omar said, adding that racism is ever-present at his farm, with Canadian workers consistently getting better treatment than migrants.

Omar said he’d like to see migrant workers get permanent residency.

“The only change I would want for us is status, so if a boss is treating us bad then we can go get another job,” Omar said. “Everything that would apply to a different worker (with permanent residency or citizenship) would apply to us too—even unemployment insurance money when you’re not working.”

He also said status would allow him to bring his family over to Canada. Right now, Omar spends about seven months of the year apart from his wife and kids while he’s working seasonally at the Ontario farm.

When Trudeau voiced commitment to improving migrant worker standards it was a good step, Omar said.

“That’s good they're hearing us. But then again I would ask: when?” Omar said. “Because people are crying out for change.”

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.