Feds blasted on foreign worker safety

Canada’s auditor general had scathing words for the federal department tasked with protecting temporary foreign workers on farms during COVID-19.

Karen Hogan last week released four performance audits into COVID-19 programs, including how the government would ensure access to food if shortages developed and another on governance at the Canadian Dairy Commission.

Employment and Social Development Canada was supposed to inspect farms to make sure temporary foreign workers were safe, had access to cleaning products, had separate accommodation for those who were infected, and had dedicated spaces for those who had to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Ottawa implemented regulations, and allocated $16.2 million in new money, to enhance inspections after large outbreaks occurred.

At least three foreign workers died from COVID-19 among the 79,000 who came to Canada between March 2020 and June 2021.

But Hogan’s report last week said the new money didn’t help and that there were issues in 73 percent of the quarantine inspection reports filed in 2020.

The department’s senior bureaucrats were informed but the situation became worse and the number of issues rose to 88 percent in 2021. As well, most reports were filed late.

Hogan told reporters there are systemic problems at ESDC and that urgency didn’t resonate among the inspection workers. Oversight mechanisms were ineffective, she said.

“When you have a 14-day window to verify quarantine compliance you have to start and complete an inspection in that 14 days in order to demonstrate that individual was able to properly quarantine,” Hogan said. “When you sit back and you look at those kind of results where 88 percent of inspections could not demonstrate that the employer was protecting the health and safety of workers, it just leads one to conclude that it is a systemic problem throughout the entire regime.

“I’m confident that they’ve heard me, but they now need to sit back and definitely do differently going forward because temporary foreign workers need better living conditions.”

The audit also found that inspectors approved employers’ protocols without evidence or with poor-quality evidence. The auditor general said inspections were initiated when outbreaks on farms were identified but then went inactive so little was done to limit infections.

The AG report lists cases where proper distance couldn’t be maintained and facilities had to be shared.

The list of transgressions includes not interviewing workers during inspections, or not interviewing the required number of workers.

Carla Qualtrough, minister responsible for ESDC, said at a news conference that she accepted the AG’s findings and that more inspectors had already been hired. Training will be improved.

She said when the pandemic began, inspectors couldn’t do their jobs in person so a virtual system in which employers could send in photographs was used. She said inspections will no longer be virtual.

“The auditor general’s report clearly outlines that despite our efforts, we fell short,” she said, adding that while most employers did their best to ensure safety for their workers, “rest assured, that we will do better to ensure that bad actors are punished and that temporary foreign workers have safe and healthy workplaces.”

The AG also recommended that since ESDC had repeatedly committed over the year to improve living conditions through the temporary foreign worker program, it should expedite the development and implementation of minimum accommodation requirements.

Meanwhile, Francis Drouin, parliamentary secretary to federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, said they accepted the recommendations on emergency food programs.

“We fully agree with the report’s call for a national emergency preparedness and response lens for crises affecting Canada’s entire food system,” he said.

The investigation found the government didn’t have a plan for such an event, that responsible departments and agencies used existing programs to fast-track the creation of new emergency food programs and that there were inconsistencies in program design that led to unfair treatment of applicants across regions.

The AG recommended that the provinces and territories be included in developing an emergency plan.

“We know that our strength is in ensuring a streamlined and co-ordinated response,” said Drouin. “We also recognize the report’s recommendation for greater fairness and transparency in program input and design as well as the importance of improving oversight control and development of performance measurements.”

The audit of the Canadian Dairy Commission found deficiencies in its governance practices as the three-member board was made up of only two people for a significant time. The AG said this could have led to an inability to make decisions. She said the CDC should stay in close contact with the agriculture minister’s office to avoid this situation again.

Source: www.producer.com