Report lobbies for better foreign agriculture worker rights

A new report calls on federal and provincial governments to shore up representation, wages and health and welfare protection for foreign agri-food workers. 

The COVID-19 special report: The Status of Migrant Agricultural Workers in Canada 2022, issued 12 recommendations at the federal level and eight provincially, said Pablo Godoy, Western Canada regional director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada.

Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for better foreign agriculture worker protections.

Dozens of migrant farm workers and representatives from the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) and UFCW launched the report at an event in Leamington, Ont. June 26. The report was a joint initiative between AWA and UFCW Canada, representing more than 250,000 members nationally. In 2020, approximately 45 per cent of all agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) resided in Ontario. 

The pandemic highlighted several TFW issues, including overcrowded and substandard living spaces, wage parity and lack of representation. 

While Ontario and the federal government provided some funding to address pandemic-related housing, isolation, quarantine and wage concerns, Godoy questioned whether they initiated deterrents. 

“Where it (worker violations) is happening, what are the penalties? What kind of levies are being placed against the employers to make sure they don’t do them again? Are we making sure there’s an actual method through which a worker can voice concern and be guaranteed not to be repatriated, given an open work permit, or have their case investigated?”

Abuse of migrant workers and the TFW program are taken seriously in Canada, said Saskia Rodenburg, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada. She said employers who abuse TFWs face monetary penalties and/or bans from the program. 

“Employers must meet specific requirements to hire foreign workers, and additional requirements to employing foreign workers in the low-wage and agricultural streams, where workers may be particularly vulnerable,” said Rodenburg. 

Employers who don’t meet program requirements or don’t cooperate during inspections face consequences including monetary penalties, revocations of Labour Market Impact Assessments and can be banned from using the program.

Employers who seek retribution or reprisals against TFWs who come forward with tips or allegations of potential wrongdoing constitutes abuse of the TFWP, she added.

Godoy said workers continue to be at risk due to lack of information and understanding of workplace standards or laws meant to protect them. 

The report alleges that agriculture workers, locals and migrants in Ontario are subject to discrimination and face exclusion from the province’s Labour Relations Act. 

“This is the root cause of the labour precarity of agricultural workers in these provinces,” the report said.

The International Labour Organization ruled in 2010 that banning on-farm unions violates the human rights of Ontario’s 100,000 migrant and domestic agricultural workers. However, the exclusion remains. 

“You allow them to have representation, and those conditions can be improved and changed,” said Godoy. “We’ll continue working to lobby all forms of government in the same way, but now armed with more information and proof that COVID has given us.”

The report suggests adopting the Manitoba model to regulate and penalize offshore recruiters of foreign workers in all provinces, with significant fines or jail sentences for domestic recruiters or temporary work agencies who exploit workers. 

According to Godoy, a lack of oversight and accountability emboldens employers to circumvent standards and laws within the programs. 

“We’re not saying that’s the case in every single space. But where it is, it’s important that something is done,” said Godoy.
“Until there’s an ability to have representation in the program, any change is kind of null and moot because there’s a lack of oversight or actual inspection day to day.”

Rodenburg said the federal government added multilingual agents to the TFW tip line to ensure clear communication was available in cases of mistreatment, abuse or workers’ rights education.

Budget 2021 committed $49.5 million over three years to implement a new Migrant Worker Support Program to better support TFWs by addressing the power imbalance between employers and workers. 

“This commitment builds on the $19.3 million directed through non-profit organizations since 2019 to support TFWs Canada by informing them of their rights and responsibilities,” Rodenburg said.

The report also asked for TFW and Seasonal Agricultural Worker (SAWs) wage parity and the “elimination of piece rates and set quotas in favour of hourly wages to eliminate labour exploitation and improve workers’ mental and physical wellbeing.”

“The argument can be made that some workers are being forced to work longer, in sometimes more dangerous or difficult situations than Canadian workers who have the protection of Canadian labour law,” Godoy said. 

Rodenburg said TFWs have the same workplace protections and rights as Canadians and permanent residents if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own and when they meet conditions to access Employment Insurance benefits.

Godoy said tens of millions of dollars have been left on the table from employment insurance payments remitted by TFW and SAW workers who were denied the benefit when they were between contracts.

“One should be able to argue if you paid into an insurance system, you should be able to depend on the insurance system, whether it’s an injury at work or whether you’re laid off, because your contract says you have to go back (to your home country) for three months, and you have to be laid off for three months,” said Godoy.

Rodenburg said the employment, rather than the individual, is insured under the EI program. All workers contributing to the program, including foreign workers, are entitled to EI benefits if they meet the insurability, qualifying and entitlement conditions.

“One of the entitlement conditions is that all claimants must be available for work in Canada to be eligible for regular or sickness benefits,” she said. “For foreign workers, this usually means they must have a valid work permit that allows them to legally work in Canada.”

The government made changes to the Employment Insurance Regulations effective Dec. 9, 2012, which gave eligibility for maternity, parental and caregiving benefits to claimants outside Canada. It is available only to individuals authorized to work in Canada who have a valid social insurance number (SIN).

“Specifically, individuals with an expired SIN will no longer be eligible for these benefits when they leave Canada,” she said. “Each year, several thousand foreign workers receive EI benefits, including regular, maternity, parental, compassionate care and sickness benefits.”

Godoy said the pandemic showed the need to expand or ensure social security networks and systems are accessible to all people working in Canada.

“That’s a prime example of industry or companies coming together to say the same thing that we’ve been saying for so long,” Godoy said, referencing the stranded TFWs who received benefits in December 2020. “People deserve access to the things they’re paying into.”

He encouraged changes if the goal is to draw more of workers into Canada and into Ontario’s agri-food sector.  

“I think there have been more conversations at all levels of government that gives us hope more changes are to come and more protections for workers are on their way, especially now that we’re facing a labour shortage and there’s talks about expanding temporary foreign worker programs.”