Jan 8, 2021

Health and safety of migrant workers: Considerations for the 2021 growing season

Migrant farm workers comprise 42% of Ontario’s agricultural workers and are essential to ensuring that food production continues during the pandemic and beyond. However, COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities that temporary migrant farm workers face during their employment in Canada. As of November 5, 2020, more than 1,600 migrant workers across Canada have contracted COVID-19.  
Temporary foreign workers frequently experience unsafe and overcrowded working and living conditions. Crowded housing makes it difficult to physically distance during the mandated 14-day quarantine period or in the event of an exposure to COVID-19. Additionally, many workers have reported inadequate access to food, communication services, hygiene products and protective equipment. These conditions make them especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.  
With the end of the growing season, many migrant workers have been unable to return home because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. The migrant farm worker program ties the worker’s status in Canada to a single employer, meaning if their employment ends they cannot secure work elsewhere. Despite paying into Employment Insurance (EI), these workers were stuck in Canada and yet ineligible for EI benefits because they did not meet the eligibility criteria of being able to seek work.  
In response to this policy gap, the federal government began allowing these stranded workers to apply for open work permits in December 2020. This would allow them to take other work and to access benefits. However, many temporary foreign workers continue to fall through the cracks because they have not earned a sufficient income to qualify for EI. Additionally, many barriers remain in the application process, such as language barriers and access to internet and phone services.  
Provincial efforts have also fallen short. The Auditor General criticized the provincial government for not providing clear direction to protect farm workers in Ontario, only issuing a memo to local public health units 8 weeks after the first farm outbreak occurred. This contrasts with British Columbia’s rapid and targeted order for farm employers to develop a COVID-19 protocol to ensure that workers self-isolated for 14 days, were housed in hygienic conditions, and provided with medical care. B.C., like Ontario, relies heavily on temporary foreign workers for farm labour, yet was able to avoid major COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers. This points to a need for a more direct order and oversight from the Ontario government to protect the rights of workers.  
Both Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have recognized that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program needs to be overhauled. They announced a $58.6 million investment for increasing protection measures in the program intended to reduce the incidence and impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on farms.  
The 2021 growing and harvesting season is fast approaching. Key considerations must be made to protect the health and wellbeing of farm workers, such as a clearer order for employers from the Province, improved financial supports for workers, and the incorporation of temporary foreign workers in the Province’s vaccination plan.  

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