A study urged better standards for migrant workers’ housing. Nothing was done. Now COVID-19 has struck
|Toronto Star 11 May 2020 at 07:55|
Across Ontario, nursing homes are the province’s deadliest epicentres for the COVID-19 pandemic. But in Chatham-Kent, the county’s largest outbreak of the virus is on a farm — where 49 migrant workers have fallen ill.
Labour advocates warn that living conditions are hastening the virus’s spread on farms across the country, where bunkhouses often make it impossible for temporary foreign workers to social distance.
Those workers are essential to the country’s food supply, leading agricultural groups to push for their exclusion from Canada’s COVID-19 travel ban.
But prior to the pandemic, many of these groups also lobbied against the creation of a national housing standard that a government study recommended “to reduce the risk of negligence and possibly of harm” to migrant workers, documents obtained by the Star show.
The national standard for migrant worker housing has not been implemented — despite a study commissioned by the federal government that found “gaps in the housing inspection process” and an “extremely wide variation of what is deemed an acceptable housing standard.”
Substandard, overcrowded housing for migrant farm workers is an issue that workers have raised literally “literally for decades,” said Fay Faraday, a Toronto-based lawyer and York University professor who has written numerous studies of migrant workers’ conditions.
“From the very beginning of the outbreak the first concern that workers were raising was whether they would have housing facilities that would be safe.”
In consultations initiated by the federal government in 2018 on updating migrant worker programs, agricultural groups including Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture pushed back against stricter auditing of living and working conditions, according to submissions obtained by the Star.
The groups argued that the process treats employers “like they are guilty of an infraction before proven innocent” and represented an “excessive” administrative burden.
“The approach from government has caused a great deal of concern, stress, and anxiety,” says one submission.
Employers’ eligibility to hire workers through Canada’s temporary foreign worker schemes is contingent on submitting housing inspection reports to the federal government. But the 2018 study conducted by the National Home Inspector Certification Council found no “uniformity” in housing standards and confusion over who enforces them: “complex jurisdictional roles and responsibilities can make it unclear what housing standards applies,” and whether housing makes the grade.
The study recommended updating and standardizing guidelines across the country, and letting inspections include a “broader scope” of issues — including bunkhouses’ electrical systems, and the age of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
In response to questions from the Star, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said the government’s review of its temporary foreign worker program “identified some opportunities to improve housing for foreign workers” that would be addressed with the provinces.
Workers say the delay comes with a price tag that is now more costly than ever.
As the tomato capital of Canada, Leamington runs on farm labour, provided mostly by migrant workers who plant, pick, and pack the fruit and vegetables the country relies on.
Some come for eight months a year; others have work permits for up to two years. None can gain permanent residence through the country’s temporary foreign worker streams.
Leamington has always been a town of immigrants, its evolution tied to successive waves of workers who powered its economy.
This year, as the COVID-19 crisis deepened, the town transformed once more.
Local hotels became self-isolation quarters for workers just in from Mexico and the Caribbean. The community health centre launched an education campaign, urging migrant workers to practice social distancing. Police circulated videos in Spanish, warning of the penalties for failing to do so.
For some workers, the rules seemed impossible to heed.
One Mexican worker here on a two-year permit said he shares a house with 10 other workers; he is picked up by a bus full of other workers to get to his job at a mushroom farm’s packing plant, where there are some 200 other employees.
“We cannot social distance because we have to work very close,” he told the Star. In April, several workers across his employer’s facilities were diagnosed with COVID-19.
In Ontario, housing inspections for migrant workers are usually done by local public health units. In Leamington, the Windsor-Essex County unit conducted 121 bunkhouse inspections between the beginning of March and mid-April, a spokesperson told the Star. Around 100 were for housing permits or licensing; the rest were reinspections or responses to complaints.
In many regions, Faraday says, the inspection process has long been flawed. In Ontario, for example, health units can’t fine employers for shoddy or unsafe housing because there are no legislated standards for worker accommodation.
Inspections “have typically been done before any workers arrive,” said Faraday. “So they are seen in a pristine condition without the workers there and without necessarily a realistic assessment of how many workers will be in that space.”
According to the 2018 housing study, where provincial standards exist, “enforcement is only done on an ad hoc, complaints based basis.”
For some migrant workers, the pandemic now prompts other concerns.
One worker, originally from Guatemala, said he has not been allowed to leave his bunkhouse since the pandemic started, other than to go to work. Even shopping for groceries is off limits — instead, he said, the farm’s secretary brings a weekly supply.
His bed is in a large open space shared by 12 workers, he said. He usually works nine-hour days, Mondays to Saturday. Sunday is a half day, leaving hours, pre-pandemic, that were the only time that felt like his own. Often he would go for walks, or visit Leamington’s scenic lakefront.
“It’s really nice for us to go out, to do other things, and stop thinking about work,” he said. “That’s how we were able to relax.” Now leaving the bunkhouse could be grounds for suspension, he said.
He understands the need to social distance, he said. But Canadians, he noted, can still go out occasionally — “We feel like prisoners.”
One county over at Greenhill Produce, site of 51 of the region’s 89 COVID-19 cases, one migrant worker said he shared a room with six others before the outbreak. In total, 24 workers lived in his bunkhouse.
“I feel like I want to cry,” the worker said.
Chatham-Kent’s public health unit said the workers are believed to have been exposed to the virus by a local farmhand. The unit’s spokesperson Caress Lee Carpenter said the bunkhouses received routine inspections prior to the outbreak, and said living arrangements make it “easy to transmit this kind of infection.”
That risk, she added, was “similar to if someone in your own household had the virus but did not yet know. The chances of other household members contracting the virus is likely.”
But few Canadians live in conditions like migrant workers, said Faraday, where “it is completely normal to have eight people living in a two-bedroom space.
“It’s so common to have workers in storage sheds or tool sheds that have been repurposed into dormlike housing with dozens of workers separated only by hanging sheets.”
The worker at Greenhill said the quality of his bunkhouse was good, other than the number of people who shared it.
By the end of April, Greenhill workers were rehoused to separate those who tested positive and negative, he said. “I think they could have moved us much much earlier.”
The public health unit said it has provided support to workers on a daily basis and the company has followed “all public health measures directed at them.”
In a statement posted to its website, Greenhill said it cared “deeply for our employees and takes all steps to protect their health and safety … we are proud to provide some of the best quality living quarters for our workers, meeting and greatly exceeding federal government regulations.
“Examples of amenities we provide in all residences is free Wi-Fi, telephone, satellite TV in each bedroom, extremely high quality furnishings, kitchen and sanitary amenities, fire alarm system, in floor heating and air conditioning.”
After authorities in British Columbia began investigating a COVID-19 outbreak amongst migrant workers in Kelowna in March, advocates warned that more would follow. Since then, agricultural employers such as Greenhill have been hit; so too have food processing facilities that rely heavily on temporary foreign workers, such as a Cargill meat-packing plant in Alberta.
Responses have varied from employer to employer. But to Faraday, the structural issues remain.
Migrant workers’ precarious immigration status and fear of reprisal makes it difficult to voice concern about conditions, Faraday said: “There is also the undeniable racism” behind employers providing conditions for migrant workers that locals wouldn’t accept.
And while employers’ responses to COVID-19 have varied, their submissions to the consultations that addressed housing concerns two years ago were consistent: stronger enforcement is not necessary.
“We urge the government to not only consider the rights of the workers but also the right of the employer to due process as they deliver these inspections,” said one submission from the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
Noting the “importance of ensuring that our (temporary foreign worker) workforce is treated fairly,” the submission added that “fairness is only one aspect of what individuals need to feel included and secure” and suggests that the federal government reallocate “funds from compliance activities to initiatives that support the inclusion and acceptance of our TFW workforce in rural communities across Canada.”
Last year, a Star investigation exposed thousands of complaints that migrant workers made to Mexican authorities. Housing was the biggest concern, with allegations of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and pest infestations. Only a small number of the complaints are ever shared with Canada’s government.
Now, the pandemic has brought the enforcement issue into sharper focus. Canada announced a $50-million program last month to help farms modify accommodation and subsidize migrants’ wages when they are in self-isolation.
Accessing the money, said Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, is dependent on employers following public health guidelines and will be accompanied by targeted inspections from federal ministries and local health units.
In a statement to the Star, Employment and Social Development Canada said it had “ceased conducting proactive inspections” in mid-March so it could “abide by local travel restrictions” and protect the health of communities and departmental staff. .”
The ministry said it expected to resume proactive inspections “in the coming days” by video and other means.
In Ontario, advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers wants the provincial Ministry of Labour to include housing in health and safety inspections.
Farm employers get subsidies, grants and regulatory exemptions, and “It is time that the workers receive the benefits that are due to them,” the group said in a recent letter to Premier Doug Ford.