Migrant workers complain of conditions, threat of deportation on Nova Scotia farm
|Toronto Star 01 Aug 2020 at 15:49|
Migrant workers at a Nova Scotia farm say they are working and living in unsafe conditions, have not been paid what they are owed as part of their mandatory quarantine period and were told to remain tight-lipped when a government agent visited the farm for an inspection or else they would be deported, allegations the farm owner adamantly denies.
Kit Andres, an organizer for the national advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the group has been hearing complaints from several migrant workers at Balamore Farm in Great Village since late April.
“It was a group of about 40 workers in quarantine that contacted me and they decided that they wanted to report their employer to (Employment and Social Development Canada),” said Andres.
Andres said the workers tried to contact an ESDC tip line to report conditions at the farm, but were unable to reach the line because only Canadian phone numbers can get through to the line and they could not get a SIM card upon arriving in Nova Scotia since they had to quarantine for 14 days. They contacted MWAC using WhatsApp.
So, Andres said they stepped in and made the call on the workers’ behalf.
The workers’ allegations, Andres noted, include “a wide range of bad living and working conditions.”
“I have local residents even reaching out to me expressing complaints about this farm,” Andres added.
They also were paid a few hundred dollars short of what they were owed as part of their two-week mandatory quarantine period as per the Quarantine Act, which they have still not been paid since arriving at the farm in April, according to Andres.
Andres said a worker told them that when a government inspection was conducted at the farm to follow up on the complaint, Balamore Farm was contacted first by a “government agent” and that a supervisor on the farm chose four employees to speak to the agent.
“The supervisor told the workers to say they were being treated well, that they were being paid OK, even though they weren’t, and that if they don’t communicate these things to the government agent, that they’re going to be deported and they’ll never work here (as part of) the program again,” Andres added.
Joe Cooper, who owns Balamore Farm, denied the allegations.
“They’re not true,” he said in an interview Friday. “We’re good people who do treat our employees well, period.”
Andres said “this is just one example among many” farms across Canada from which the MWAC has heard similar complaints that have been reported to ESDC.
“There’s either no followup and when there is followup, they follow up with the employer, not with the workers,” said Andres.
On Friday, the federal government into the temporary foreign worker program to safeguard the health and safety of temporary foreign workers from COVID-19 .
Of that investment, $7.4 million is dedicated to “increasing supports” to temporary foreign workers, including $6 million for direct outreach to workers delivered through migrant worker support organizations, and $16.2 million to “strengthening the employer inspections regime” and making improvements to how tips and allegations of employer non-compliance are addressed.
Another $35 million is meant to improve health and safety on farms and in employee living quarters to prevent and respond to the spread of COVID-19. This will go toward infrastructure improvements, temporary or emergency housing, as well as PPE and sanitary stations, among other things.
“Today’s announcement is really, I believe, a reflection that we know we have more work to do to protect workers and this is work that has to be done in conjunction with the provinces and the territories who have the primary responsibility to enforce occupational health and safety standards,” federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told the Chronicle Herald before the newspaper learned of the mistreament allegations.
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Andres said the announcement “is not enough” and that the investment “falls short.”
“How will increased inspections and increased funding for inspections help the workers? How will this empower the workers?” Andres said.
The federal government also announced $50 million in April for employers in food production and processing who need to institute a two-week isolation period for temporary foreign workers.
Andres said migrant workers and migrant worker advocacy groups have been calling for permanent resident status for migrant workers for several years and that it is “the only way” to address health and safety issues on farms that take part in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.
Each year, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 temporary foreign agricultural, food and fish processing workers come to work in Canada, roughly 1,500 of which come to Nova Scotia.