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Alden Collins removes pruned limbs and branches from apple trees at Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, Ont., on June 12, 2020. This is the third year that Collins will be working at the farm. He sends money back to his family in Jamaica every week or so, and will work until the end of the year.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it is time to find ways to better protect migrant farm workers who are essential to Canada’s food system but have been hard hit by the pandemic because of overcrowded housing, unsafe working conditions and precarious immigration status.

At his daily briefing Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said he has personally reassured Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that Ottawa is working to contain outbreaks at Canadian farms, where hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19. In Ontario alone, more than 600 foreign agriculture labourers have been infected. Two men from Mexico, aged 24 and 31, have died.

“We know that there are many issues – from living conditions, to the fact that they’re tied individually to particular companies or employers, to various challenges around labour standards – that require looking at,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We could also look at pathways to citizenship that could give people more rights. … We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect: Can we change the system to do better?"

Essential but expendable: How Canada failed migrant farm workers

Migrant farm workers detail dangerous pandemic conditions

A Globe and Mail investigation into outbreaks among migrant farm workers published Tuesday exposed myriad factors that made them vulnerable to the virus: overrun accommodations; supervisors putting pressure on ill labourers to keep working; no sick days; an information vacuum; threats of deportation if strict productivity targets weren’t met; and lack of personal protective equipment.

While Ottawa issued rules for the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals, the conditions that workers faced post-isolation weren’t adequately monitored. Migrant farm workers fell through the cracks of a system in which everyone, and no one, is responsible for their well-being.

Mexico’s ambassador told The Globe that his country has temporarily halted sending more workers, until Canadian officials get a handle on the outbreaks and ensure people are properly paid while they’re in isolation. Upward of 5,000 Mexicans are still due to make the trip; they are critical to the success of Canadian farm operations and the country’s food system. Juan Jose Gomez Camacho said Mexico will also more closely monitor employers who hire seasonal farm workers.

“We will only bring workers to responsible, honest farms,” he said. One employer in Canada recently requested more workers, even as the farm confronted an outbreak. The farm, he said, will not receive additional labour until the situation there stabilizes. And to any employer who claims that migrant workers came to Canada already infected with COVID-19, he said this: “There will be no more workers.” (Health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the farm workers contracted the virus locally.)

A group of Mexican and Canadian politicians and labour representatives, including a senator in Mexico and a union leader in Canada, were slated to meet virtually Tuesday night to discuss the cases of COVID-19 among migrant farm workers.

Jamaica, which last year sent approximately 10,000 farm workers to Canada, is so far satisfied with efforts made by Canadian health and safety officials to contain COVID-19, according to Carlton Anderson, the Toronto-based chief liaison officer with the Jamaican Liaison Service. Asked whether the country is slowing the flow of its workers to Canada, he said “we’re not at that stage yet.” The liaison service, which manages the seasonal agriculture workers program under a bilateral agreement with Ottawa, is aware of 62 Jamaican farm workers in Canada who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Mr. Trudeau said the coronavirus crisis marks an opportunity to “re-imagine the system where we are dependent on temporary foreign workers in order to assure the good functioning of our agriculture system across the country." The Prime Minister did not offer specifics but said the government is looking at what it can improve. The federal employment and immigration departments did not have any further details to provide The Globe as of deadline.

While several jurisdictions have roles to play in ensuring the well-being of migrant workers on Canadian farms – local public-health units inspect bunkhouses, and the provinces are responsible for workplace health and safety – the federal government is ultimately in charge of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. The agriculture sector employs approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers each year, with upward of 10,000 of them employed in Southwestern Ontario’s Windsor-Essex County. Nearly 300 migrant workers in the county have been infected.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford also addressed the outbreaks among migrant farm workers at his daily briefing, telling reporters that 724 agriculture workers have been swabbed in recent days at a mass-testing centre set up in Leamington, Ont. “The co-operation between the farmers and the migrant workers, it’s absolutely critical,” the Premier said. “I want as many people tested as possible.”

Under the TFW program, farms generally provide housing to migrant workers. The workers are authorized to work for a particular employer for a set amount of time, leaving them vulnerable to abuses; their status in the country is inextricably tied to their status with an employer.

Migrant rights groups have long called for more pathways to permanent residency, which affords workers the freedom to work anywhere in the country, with no time limit. More recently, advocates have called for an expansion of the open work permit program – a form of authorization, launched last year, that allows some workers to leave abusive employers and work elsewhere for up to 12 months.

“I think the government is going in the right direction if they’re looking at more flexible paths to permanent residency,” said Santiago Escobar, a co-ordinator with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, which operates under the United Food and Commercial Workers union and represents migrant workers. “It seems like this is the right time to make meaningful changes. Everyone is talking about racism and room for improvement. This is part of the conversation.”

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