You(th) can advocate for change: Migrant food workers don’t need praise, they need rights

By Sharlaine Murga,  FSC Youth Caucus member

– OCTOBER 14, 2020

We are living in unprecedented times which means change is possible, including migrant justice. Join the migrant justice movement and advocate for the individuals who sustain our food supply chain and food security. You can be an ally for migrant workers through key actions.

Key actions for Migrant Justice Allies

LEARN

ACT

  • On Sun. Oct. 18 @ 10 am ET, participate in Justicia 4 Migrant Workers’ Digital Day for Action
  • Sign the petition: Leave No one Behind in the COVID-19 Response!
  • Follow @MigrantRightsCA and @harvestingfreedom on Twitter and Instagram and amplify #StatusforAll on social media 
  • Continue reading and learning about migrant food workers’ issues

COVID-19 has significantly impacted the Canadian food system, a system that is reliant on migrant workers. After a series of panic-buying at grocery stores, food industry leaders assured the public there would be no food shortages because consumers can rely on Canadian farmers to produce sufficient food and thereby sustain the food supply chain. What has now been made visible is that many Canadian farmers rely on migrant workers to continue feeding our country. For decades, the agri-food industry has been outsourcing foreign labour to produce home-grown food. The demand for workers to grow, harvest, and process food is mainly addressed through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which allows farms and businesses to seek workers from other countries when domestic labour cannot meet demand. Without these programs, the agricultural sector is at risk of labour shortages, an issue that was pronounced after the Canadian border closed in light of COVID-19. The horticulture industry which produces fresh fruits and vegetables is especially at risk of labour gaps, as 43% of the workforce is represented by foreign workers. The government eventually exempted temporary foreign workers from travel restrictions, a decision made to protect food security and support the economy. While many farmers strive to protect workers, not enough has been done to protect and support migrant workers themselves.

 

The hidden cost of food security

 Many migrant workers have claimed that crowded housing and working conditions have made it difficult to physically distance, a problem compounded by a lack of access to personal protective equipment. While the federal government has provided an emergency fund to assist farmers and producers adapt to health protocols from COVID-19, the contribution is considered to be insufficient and lacking accountability.

The main challenge however is that migrant workers have no recourse for complaint or to signal unsafe working conditions.Without permanent resident status, migrant workers are in a precarious situation with their employer, who often control a worker’s housing, their ability to stay in Canada, and ability to return in the future. Because of this, many migrant workers cannot exercise their right to refuse unsafe work for fear of deportation, loss of income, and homelessness. 

Due to COVID-19, unsafe work means working in a place where there is a risk of contracting the virus. Two of the country’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks occurred at Cargill and JBS meat processing plants, where migrant workers and immigrants make up the majority of the workforce. As of May 6, Cargill reported 949 cases and as of May 20, JBS reported 650 cases. Several outbreaks of COVID-19 were also seen in Ontario farms that hire many migrant workers. It is estimated that over 1000 migrant farm workers in Ontario have contracted COVID-19 at their workplace. Sadly, three migrant farm workers, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, and Juan Lopez Chaparro have died of COVID-19. These events demonstrate that the food security of Canadians is coming at the expense of migrant workers’ health and safety.

 

The pathway to permanent residency is filled with roadblocks

The Agri-food Pilot, a program that offers permanent residency to some migrant food workers was launched in June 2020 by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Under this program, experienced, non-seasonal workers in specific industries and occupations may access a pathway for permanent residency. Temporary foreign workers who are employed in the meat-processing, greenhouse, floriculture, mushroom production, and animal production industries are eligible to apply, but only if they have a non-seasonal full-time contract. Therefore, workers who fall under the SAWP are excluded from this program. The pilot also excludes Quebec workers and migrants working in fisheries and aquaculture. Many migrants work less than the 12-month requirement and are therefore ineligible to benefit from the Agri-food pilot, even though many return to work in Canada for years.

In fact, some workers have been returning to the same employers for up to 15 years with little chance of permanent residency because many farm workers are ineligible due to their categorization.  Only skilled workers under certain categories are able to immigrate to Canada. Even though the pandemic has proven that migrant food workers are essential, the systems and institutions that employ them have yet to value migrant workers as individuals who greatly contribute to the food system deserving of dignity, respect, and rights.

Racism is rooted in food work

COVID-19 has brought food injustices to the forefront as we uncomfortably witness the inequities that are embedded in the food system. While communities are in lockdown, those who are unable to physically distance or work from home are often from racialized communities. In the height of fear and speculation around Covid, racialized farmworkers in particular have faced increased discrimination, reporting acts of anti-Black racism by employers and stigma from communities who see them as “disease-carriers”, even though migrant workers were and are still required to self-isolate for two weeks after entering Canada. In Alberta, Filipino workers who make up 70% of Cargill’s workforce have been discriminated against and blamed for spreading COVID-19, as the employer has a key role to play in containing the outbreak. While Canada has yet to collect nationwide COVID-19 data on race or immigration status of cases, U.S. findings revealed that Black people and people of colour are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This is a troubling reality since many migrant food workers are Black or people of colour.

 

Rights and protections needed for migrant workers

While Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged the importance and plight of migrant food workers, outside of financial handouts to migrant workers’ employers, he did not specifically say what the government would do to protect them. Grassroots organizations such as the Migrant Rights Network and Justicia for Migrant Workers have been demanding change in temporary work and immigration systems for decades. Recommended changes include healthcare and status for all, inclusion of migrant groups in program planning, and worker protections. A similar coalition of self-organized groups of migrant workers, Migrant Worker’s Alliance for Change, calls for action in Unheeded Warnings, a report that outlines policy recommendations to support and protect migrant workers in Canada during the pandemic. These calls were echoed in Food Secure Canada’s food policy action plan, Growing Resilience & Equity, and include but are not limited to (Migrant Worker’s Alliance for Change, 2020):

  • Permanent resident status on arrival
  • Ensure social distancing and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
    • Ensure PPE for all migrant workers in housing and at work
    • Ensure health information and care is provided in workers’ languages
  • Create Dignified Living Conditions
    • Create a national housing standard so that workers can live safely and with dignity
    • Ensure full and easy access off farms for sending remittances, buying groceries, receiving social support, accessing healthcare as well as Wi-Fi and phones
  • Ensure Decent Work 
    • Increase wages for essential agricultural workers permanently
    • Ensure that agricultural workers have access to all labour rights including worker compensation without exemptions and exclusions