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Ottawa announces funding for migrant worker protections — but advocates aren’t celebrating yet

Ottawa announces funding for migrant worker protections — but advocates aren’t celebrating yet
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Ottawa will invest $58 million toward increased farm inspections and creating mandatory housing requirements for migrant workers, the prime minister announced Friday.

Speaking at his daily briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed “deep sorrow” at the deaths of three migrant workers from COVID-19, and said Canada had “let those communities down.”

“There are lots of changes we need to make,” Trudeau said.

In an interview with the Star, immigration minister Marco Mendicino said the announcement is part of an effort to “enhance protections and workers’ rights, which our government feels very strongly about.”

But the new measures fall short of the change advocates have long called for: permanent status for migrant workers whose right to be in Canada is tied to a seasonal contract with a single employer.

“Without permanent resident status, migrant workers don’t have the power to assert their rights, make complaints or access programs because doing so means termination, homelessness, deportation and inability to feed their families,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC).

“Today’s announcement fails to fix this fundamental power imbalance and as a result will not solve the crisis migrants are facing. We expect Prime Minister Trudeau to do the urgent and necessary thing, and create a regularization program for all migrant and undocumented people immediately.”

This week, the Star reported on a new reprisal claim filed by migrant worker Gabriel Flores Flores to the provincial labour board, which alleges he was terminated and threatened with deportation after speaking to journalists about a massive COVID-19 outbreak that killed his bunkmate.

In a letter delivered to Mendicino this week, Flores asked the federal government to give permanent status to migrant workers to prevent future abuse.

Mendicino said Friday that he had read the letter and commended Flores for “the courage that he has demonstrated in advocating not only for his cause, but for the cause of all migrant workers.”

Mendicino said he, along with employment minister Carla Qualtrough, had also “carefully reviewed the recommendations put forward” by MWAC.

“I know that they’re calling on the government to examine status. And that is a discussion that we are continuing to have with (them),” he said.

“Whether you’re Canadian or you’re a migrant worker, you have a right to work in this country without being subjected to abuse to threats.”

More than a thousand migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to public health unit and media reports.

Mendicino said new financial aid of $35 million for infrastructure and housing improvements will be “used flexibly by employers and by workers to come up with the best arrangement.”

“Those arrangements will be tailored to the particular circumstances and places of employment.”

As previously reported by the Star, a government study recommended a federal housing standard for migrant workers — but it was nixed after opposition from employer groups.

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On Friday, the government said it would “work to develop mandatory requirements to improve employer-provided accommodations, focusing on ensuring better living conditions for workers.”

“As a first step, the government will consult with provinces and territories, employers, workers and foreign partner countries on a proposal for these mandatory requirements,” the announcement said.

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, the health and safety of temporary foreign workers has been a top priority. Any unsafe working conditions are completely unacceptable,” Qualtrough said in a statement Friday.

“While we are proud of the worker protections we have in this country, we recognize that there are important issues that need to be addressed within the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and we are taking action.”

Additional funding will also go to migrant worker outreach, including through an existing pilot project called the Migrant Worker Support Network (MWSN).

That organization was designed to “enhance protections” — but has attracted criticism from grassroots groups who say migrant workers themselves have been excluded from the network.

“We decided not to participate, and same with all the grassroot migrant groups,” said Byron Cruz of the B.C.-based advocacy group Sanctuary Health.

Cruz said to date, the network organized virtual training sessions and community kitchens for migrant workers — but weren’t accessible to migrant workers given their demanding working schedules and lack of computer access.

“I consider this a waste of resources,” he said.

Some $16 million of the new funding will go to strengthened inspections. Cruz said he’s been disappointed in enforcement efforts to date, which have been mostly virtual and found few employers in non-compliance.
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