Migrant farm workers say they have been punished by their employers over disagreements about COVID-19 precautions, fuelling calls for an independent oversight agency that would empower temporary foreign workers to register complaints without fear of reprisal.
A number of migrant farm workers in B.C. and Ontario told The Globe and Mail they were fired or unnecessarily forced to quarantine after being accused of breaking pandemic-related rules or speaking out about inadequate safety measures. Under the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, seasonal agricultural workers often live in employer-provided bunkhouses on the farm. In some cases, these living quarters are overcrowded and rundown, allowing the virus to spread easily. Amid a series of COVID-19 outbreaks, some employers have confined workers to the property.
The accounts are emblematic of long-standing issues within the TFW program, which the federal government has admitted is flawed and puts too much power in the hands of employers. Even before the pandemic, workers said they faced repercussions for attempting to assert their rights.
While Ottawa has announced investments to help ensure migrant workers are protected from COVID-19 in the short term, the government has also pledged structural changes to the TFW program in the longer term. In June, federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough promised a full overhaul, saying “nothing is off the table.”
Workers and advocates say they want the revamp to include the creation of an independent agency to probe complaints, with the guarantee that employees wouldn’t be punished for raising concerns.
Currently, workers can lodge complaints with consular officials or Canadian authorities, for example through a federal tip-line or provincial labour relations boards. As of last year, migrant workers can also apply for open work permits, which allow foreign nationals with employer-specific permits to leave abusive situations and work elsewhere for up to one year.
According to labour organizers, the current complaints regime is flawed for several reasons: Without one single entity responsible for handling grievances, workers often don’t know where to turn; consular officials are in the conflicted position of wanting to foster relationships with employers in order to secure job openings for their citizens, but then also having to challenge those same employers when issues arise; rarely do complaints lead to fines or other penalties; and workers fear that filing a complaint or applying for an open work permit could cause them to be blacklisted by their own countries from participating in foreign work programs.
“Workers have very little agency and very little power,” said Pablo Godoy, who oversees the national agricultural worker portfolio for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Canada.
The situation, he said, is particularly concerning in Ontario, where more than 1,300 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and three men have died. And while the power imbalance in the TFW program is felt across the country, it is especially pronounced in the province. Unlike most other jurisdictions in Canada, agricultural workers in Ontario are prohibited from unionizing or entering into collective bargaining agreements. The decades-old ban applies to all farm workers, including Canadian citizens.
Farm workers in Ontario can form associations, as they have done through the national Agricultural Workers Alliance, which operates under the UFCW banner and represents migrant farm workers. But the inability to unionize, Mr. Godoy said, means workers don’t have adequate protection against arbitrary dismissal.
Luis Gabriel Flores Flores told The Globe he was fired from Scotlynn Group’s farm in Vittoria, Ont., after he confronted a supervisor about how the company handled the illness of his bunk-mate, Juan Lopez Chaparro, a 55-year-old Mexican father of three who died after contracting COVID-19. The next day, Mr. Flores said, he was wrongfully accused of doing a masked interview with broadcast media about conditions on the farm. He said he was fired and told he would be sent home to Mexico. Mr. Flores, a father of two who has participated in the TFW program since 2014, filed an anti-reprisals claim on July 30 with the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
Scotlynn Group’s president and CEO, Scott Biddle, told The Globe that Mr. Flores’s account is “completely untrue.” He said Mr. Flores decided to return to Mexico because he was scared of the virus and wanted to tend to his ill mother.
A worker at another Ontario farm, in Leamington, said he went to a forested area on the property to have a private conversation on his cellphone about a family emergency in Mexico. He said his supervisor accused him of having left the farm premises. “I had to pack up my stuff to move to a new house [in town],” said the man. The Globe is not naming him because of concerns about his future employment opportunities. “I was put there, in quarantine,” he said. “They left me there alone. They didn’t give me any information. They didn’t bring any food.” The man quit the farm and has applied for an open work permit.
In a phone call from Trinidad and Tobago, worker Clinton John said he was not recalled this year for a fourth season at EZ Grow Farms in Ontario’s Norfolk County after raising concerns in 2019 about his living conditions. Mr. John said he lived in trailers for the 2017 and 2018 growing seasons but last year was assigned to a garage. He had access to a portable outdoor toilet and was told he could also use the washroom and kitchen in a residence next to the garage. In June, he posted a video online of the garage accommodations.
“Workers are scared they won’t be able to come back [if they speak up with concerns],” Mr. John said. “And as you see with me, it does go on. In 12 years of working in Canada, I was always asked back.”
EZ Grow co-owner Dusty Zamecnik did not dispute that Mr. John and three other men were assigned to live in a rented garage located on another farm. He added, though, that the video was taken before additional fridges and portable stove-tops were supplied. Mr. Zamecnik said the garage was approved by local public-health officials for use as employer-provided housing.
Mr. Zamecnik said Mr. John was not asked back this year because he didn’t get along with the other staff. He said he also explained to Mr. John that the living situation was temporary while EZ Grow constructed five new housing units, which cost a total of about $500,000 and were completed earlier this year. “We wouldn’t want to jeopardize our ability to be part of the program,” Mr. Zamecnik said. “We need it.” He also provided The Globe with an e-mail from a Trinidad and Tobago consular official in Toronto that said EZ Grow has “always worked with the liaison services to ensure that our workers are happy and comfortable.”
Erika Zavala and her partner Jesus Molina were fired from West Kelowna’s Bylands Nurseries after a community volunteer brought them clothes and culturally appropriate food. In a phone interview from her home in Mexico, Ms. Zavala said she got permission from a supervisor to have someone drop off supplies, but said she and Mr. Molina were later handed termination letters and told to pack up their trailers.
Ms. Zavala said Mexican consular officials in B.C. told her it would be difficult to arrange a transfer to another farm because Bylands had experienced an outbreak in the spring and employers would be reluctant to accept their staff. She said she was also told by Mexican authorities that while she could apply for an open work permit, doing so could cost her a spot in the seasonal agricultural program next year. “We think we’re going to be kicked out of the program because we’ve been outspoken about these injustices,” said Ms. Zavala, a mother of three who is currently unemployed. “But enough is enough.”
Bylands Nurseries said in an e-mail that because of the pandemic, it is taking “additional precautions” for its staff living in company accommodations. Bylands said it dismissed Ms. Zavala and Mr. Molina after “multiple infractions, following orientation on the workplace policies and warnings about leaving the premises.”
The Mexican consul-general in B.C., Berenice Diaz Ceballos, said Ms. Zavala and Mr. Molina chose to go back to Mexico. “They accepted that they had violated the rules,” she said. “They didn’t accept my proposition to [transfer] to another farm or to [try] to get an open work permit.”
Employment and Social Development Canada said it does not track suspensions, terminations or deportations of temporary foreign workers. It said the federal government is improving its worker tip-line and has appointed a departmental liaison officer to work with consulates and migrant rights groups.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada noted that a person’s temporary status in the country is typically valid until its expiration date, regardless of whether or not the person is still working. The Canada Border Services Agency said that because of the pandemic, it has paused deportations of people found inadmissible for working without authorization.
With research from Rick Cash in Toronto
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