by Deirdre kelly
photography by Mike Ford
During the first few months of the pandemic, after putting in place strict controls aimed at protecting the health and well-being of its citizens, Canada seemed to have had a handle on curbing the spread of COVID-19. But in June, after more than a thousand migrant farm workers tested positive for the virus and three died while living in cramped quarters on Ontario farms, those protective measures were quickly deemed inadequate. As the health crisis has cruelly revealed, temporary migrant workers who annually enter Canada to toil in the country’s multibillion-dollar agri-food industry don’t enjoy the same rights and job protections as Canadians, despite performing an essential service from which all Canadians benefit.
Leah Vosko (PhD ’99) is a political science professor at York University and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair who has conducted two decades of research on precarious employment, focusing more recently on the status of temporary migrant agricultural workers. She knows from experience that their tenuous residency status and precarious conditions of employment are long-standing problems.
For over 60 years, Canada has allowed farmers to recruit workers from countries in the Caribbean, as well as from Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines. According to a recent federal government report, between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign agricultural, food and fish-processing workers come to Canada to work each year, a figure accounting for more than 60 percent of all foreign workers to enter the country under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Canada exports around $56 billion of agricultural farm products to the U.S. annually, or $62 billion when you factor in the fishing industry. A domestic labour shortage coupled with growing exports has made migrant workers an essential part of the Canadian economy. And yet, subjected to unregulated living conditions and restricted access to health care, their value is often undermined. Vosko wants to change that.
We need action now – including inspections of farms that engage migrant workers to ensure adherence to occupational health and safety requirements
Her latest book, Disrupting Deportability: Transnational Workers Organize, examines the legal and political struggles of a group of Mexican nationals who came to British Columbia as part of the country’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. In an attempt to improve their working conditions, the seasonal agricultural workers tried to unionize, yet some were barred and ultimately denied, or offered limited and highly precarious future employment opportunities in Canada. Vosko’s exposé shines a light on an unsavoury side of Canada’s food industry during the global health crisis, when migrant farm workers are facing a whole new set of challenges. As an executive member of the newly formed Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, she is using her expertise to influence the creation of new policies aimed at protecting migrant workers’ rights and their very lives.
“We need action now – including inspections of farms that engage migrant workers to ensure adherence to occupational health and safety requirements and to provincial and territorial labour standards,” wrote Vosko in a June letter to the federal government, which was co-signed by a consortium of Canadian infectious disease and health and safety experts. “This action must include in-person and unannounced inspections on farms, without supervisor/employer involvement,” she continued. Her clarion call also identified a need for more comprehensive protections and treatment options for workers who fall ill while in Canada. Her impassioned words and the advocacy efforts of the working group hit their mark.
In late July, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would invest $58.6 million to protect migrant workers from COVID-19 and check the spread of the virus on Canadian farms. The Prime Minister also pledged to review the country’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. “In some cases, we have let those communities down,” Trudeau said. “There are lots of changes we need to make, and we need to continue to work on supporting these people and these families as they support us.”
But in order to go forward, more still needs to be done than just handing out government money during the pandemic. To protect the rights and dignity of temporary agricultural workers in the future, Vosko recommends that all migrant workers who come to Canada be offered permanent residency status. Redefining their status in this country would give the migrant workers standing and recognition as essential workers meriting fair compensation and full access to occupational health and safety protections, and to health-care services of the same order as citizens: “It’s the least we could do.” ■