A Canadian union has made 20 recommendations to improve conditions for temporary foreign workers, many of them employed on farms and at agribusinesses such as meat-packing plants.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union and the Agricultural Workers Alliance said in their report, The Stqtus of Migrant Agricultural Workers in Canada 2022, that the pandemic revealed chronic problems, such as poor and crowded housing, below-parity wages and lack of avenues to make their voices heard.
While Ontario and the federal government provided some funding to address pandemic-related housing, isolation, quarantine and wage concerns, Pablo Godoy of the UFCW union said there still are no penalties for employers who abused workers.
“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?” she asked.
But Saskia Rodenburg, speaking for Employment and Social Development Canada, said it takes things seriously and employers who abuse temporary foreign workers (TFWs) face monetary penalties and/or bans from the program.
They can be fined and booted out of the program.
It’s also considered a program abuse if employers exact retribution whistleblowers, she said.
Yet 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 report said provinces should copy Manitoba’s model to regulate and penalize recruiters or temporary worker agencies that exploit workers.
Godoy said “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.” She added that not all employers are abusive.
“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.
Godoy said the pandemic showed the need to expand or ensure social security networks and systems are accessible to all people working in Canada. TFWs pay employment insurance and worker compensation premiums, but are too often denied coverage, she said. “People deserve access to the things they’re paying into.”
Rodenberg said “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.”