Lea Matheson is a former senior adviser to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, where she focused on migration.
If you drive around the farming communities of Southern Ontario, you’ll see workers in the fields toiling under the hot sun. Their exhausting work puts food on Canadian tables. It also puts food on tables in Mexico, Jamaica and across the Caribbean. These front line workers ensure we don’t go hungry, particularly during the pandemic; they are critical to our food security.
Almost all migrant workers arriving in Canada were tested and confirmed to be free of COVID-19. Through no fault of their own, hundreds have contracted the virus through community transmission after they arrived, and three have died. The virus spread quickly because of their cramped living quarters and inadequate working areas.
Canada has been a leader in establishing international standards on migration, but our country’s treatment of migrant workers runs counter to its international commitments and threatens to damage its global reputation.
In 2018, Canada endorsed the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration at the United Nations. The Global Compact is a framework of principles, objectives and actions to strengthen migration standards and protect the rights of migrants. It applies to both sending and receiving countries, and by endorsing it, Canada made a commitment to implementing those standards.
Over two years of negotiations, Canada was recognized as a leader by the UN. Canada identified and proposed concrete solutions to global migration challenges. It worked closely with civil society organizations and built partnerships that crossed the world. Canada was regularly asked by the Global Compact organizers to mediate with countries that were backpedalling on migration issues and to assist in garnering international commitment for the compact’s implementation.
Canada’s accomplishments are doubly impressive given the rise of populist movements around the world. In the U.K., the Brexit side won in part because of a campaign against migration, and in the United States, President Donald Trump ran on an anti-migration platform, subsequently pulling out of the Global Compact. Globally, anti-migrant sentiment has been growing. Even in Canada, a misinformation campaign claimed the compact would impinge on sovereignty and encourage mass migration.
Now COVID-19 has put a spotlight on Canada’s own policies. The outbreaks among farm workers have exposed the pre-existing weaknesses in how we treat these migrants.
For decades, Canada’s migrant worker programs have been plagued with vulnerabilities to abuse, exploitation, workplace injuries and deplorable living conditions. This vulnerability is particularly true for those on work permits tied to only one employer. Migrant workers risk losing their jobs and livelihoods if they raise complaints.
Implementing the Global Compact can help Canada do better.
The compact’s underlying, non-negotiable principle is respect for human rights, including labour rights. It also promotes partnerships among governments, employers and migrant worker organizations. It stresses that policies should “not create, exacerbate or unintentionally increase vulnerabilities.” Following the premise of the compact means that including migrant workers as partners is an important first step. For example, working directly with migrants early in the pandemic to understand why they feared COVID-19 tests could have reduced the number of outbreaks.
In adopting the compact, states committed “to adapt options and pathways for regular migration in a manner that facilitates labour mobility and decent work.” In order to do so, one action outlined in the compact is to provide “flexible, convertible and non-discriminatory visa and permit options.” In line with the compact, Canada’s migrant worker programs should move from providing migrants with employer-specific visas to open or occupation-specific visas or even permanent residency.
Not tying workers to one employer reduces the risk of exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, not fearing reprisals, migrants may more often report violations and access services, thus recognizing their rights. Canada moved toward open visas with last year’s regulatory change allowing migrant workers at risk of workplace abuse to apply for an open visa, usually for one year. However, the onus is still on the migrant worker in a vulnerable situation.
Migration, and specifically the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers, is a global story as much as it is a national one. What we do at home affects how we are seen elsewhere. Recently, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne noted that Canada would “continue to play a leadership role and continue to defend and promote our values and principles around the world.” If Canada is committed to a global leadership role, it must improve its own standards before advocating to others the importance of principles and values.
By truly improving migration standards at home and acting on the international commitments it has made to protect the most vulnerable, Canada will build healthier communities and stronger economies – at home and abroad.
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