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Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., on May 6, 2020. Advocates, medical experts and workers have long warned that poor living and working conditions are threatening workers’ health and safetyGraham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Ottawa will spend $58.6-million in efforts to improve the health and safety of temporary foreign workers in the agriculture industry, amid criticism that the government has not done enough to protect migrant farm workers.

The added funding is aimed at increasing inspections and improving employee housing. The government also said it will consult with provinces, employers, workers and foreign partner countries in the coming months to develop a “co-ordinated national approach” – mandatory requirements on employer-provided accommodations to ensure better living conditions for workers.

Advocates, medical experts and workers have long warned that poor living and working conditions are threatening workers’ health and safety – with these risks only heightened with the pandemic. More than 1,300 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ontario alone, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units, and three have died – one of whom was just 24.

A Globe investigation into the outbreaks in June revealed the unsafe conditions experienced by some farm workers. Interviews, photos and videos showed crowded bedrooms, broken toilets, cockroaches and bed-bug infestations. Workers cited a lack of access to PPE and pressure to keep working, even when suffering with symptoms of COVID-19.

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And while the federal government is ultimately in charge of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, The Globe’s subsequent reporting found a lapse concerning in-person inspections and little enforcement of the rules at the height of the pandemic meant to protect workers.

“We look at the tragedies that have hit the temporary foreign workers’ community with deep sorrow. This is something that is on Canadians,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday, adding that there are “lots of changes that we need to make.”

In an interview with The Globe in June, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the federal government was planning an overhaul of the TFW program. On Friday, she said there are still “reported cases of inappropriate behaviour and unsafe working conditions.”

Workers, health professionals and rights groups said the measures still fall short, and don’t address systemic problems embedded in the structure of the program, where a precarious work status leaves workers unable to protect their rights for fear of being fired and deported.

Gabriel Flores, a farm worker in Ontario who tested positive for COVID-19 in May, said in an interview Friday that workers need “permanent residency, because we need to be able to defend ourselves and defend our rights and … be able to do something for our living and working conditions so that we can be healthy, be safe and work in decent conditions.”

Workers need a “comprehensive” solution now, he said, adding that more new programs and money won’t make a difference to workers if they don’t have the power to access them.

New measures announced Friday include $35-million for infrastructure improvements to living quarters, which also cover temporary emergency housing along with PPE and sanitary stations.

The government will also contribute $16-million to improve responses to allegations of employer non-compliance and strengthen inspections; the government will add “up to” 3,000 more inspections, which could potentially double the number of inspections this year. However, it didn’t say how many of these will be in person, or unannounced. And $6-million is slated for outreach to workers through migrant-worker support groups.

Despite some positive steps, such as acknowledging the need for pro-active enforcement of workplace and housing standards, “the changes announced today do not go nearly far enough,” said a statement by the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group.

Workers’ visas are still tied to their employers, which causes barriers in accessing safe working conditions, it said. “We encourage the federal government to address vulnerabilities workers face that arise from the conditions of their employment, specifically by instituting permanent residency on arrival and ending tied work permits.”

In B.C. Natalie Drolet, staff lawyer and executive director of the Migrant Workers Centre, said the government’s response is “too little, too late and is only a Band-Aid solution” that fails to address systemic problems such as their precarious work status.

In Ontario, Santiago Escobar, national representative at United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said housing must be improved “as soon as possible,” and for these measures to work, migrant farm workers need stronger labour rights, so they can join a union, have collective agreements and better labour mobility.

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