Migrant farm workers are essential in maintaining food supply for Canadians, particularly during this pandemic. In 2017, migrant workers made up 41.6% of all agricultural workers in Ontario. However, migrant farm workers have not received adequate protections, and have been especially susceptible to exploitation and COVID-19. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, over 1,100 migrant workers in Ontario have been diagnosed with COVID-19, resulting in 3 deaths.
Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has had 32 COVID-19 related complaints regarding the migrant farm worker program since March, but has not issued any formal notice of violations. However, an external investigation by the Globe and Mail into farm conditions in June, revealed overcrowded housing, bed bugs, broken toilets, cockroaches, and sheets as well as cardboard used for physical distancing. The Migrant Workers Alliance created a COVID-19 hotline, which received complaints from 316 workers who were underpaid and 538 workers reported lacking access to food. Another 160 complaints were from migrants not able to maintain physical distancing. A significant number (110) of workers reported a lack of access to healthcare services.
Not all agricultural workers in Ontario are afforded the same level of employment protections. Agricultural workers are entitled to protection under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), as well as the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act. However, there is a distinction between growers and harvesters; growers are not entitled to important rights under the ESA, such as the right to: minimum wage, limits on the number of hours worked, time off between shifts, overtime pay, or eating periods.
All employees should have equal rights and be treated equally. It is critical that the Provincial government and Federal Government work together to treat migrant agricultural workers fairly by ensuring effective access to health care and complaint mechanisms, as well as by conducting random in-person inspections.
We recommend that the Province extend the same labour protections that Ontarians receive, to migrant agricultural workers, including protections from hazardous conditions. All employees in the province have equal protections under the law, regardless of their work visa.