Farmers employing temporary foreign workers can expect a stronger enforcement of COVID-19 safety inspections after a recent auditor general report scrutinized Employment and Social Development Canada for failing to conduct adequate pandemic farm assessments.
Report 13 of 2021, Health and Safety of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic, found that the department responsible for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program assessed nearly all employers as compliant with pandemic safety requirements instituted in April 2020, with little to no evidence to prove this.
In July 2020, $16.2 million was poured into the department to conduct the inspections. Employer requirements include providing separate isolation quarters for both recent arrivals and sick or symptomatic employees, sanitation products, and basic living essentials like running water and occupancy level.
Auditor General Karen Hogan first noted problems with the inspections at the end of 2020 and extended the audit period to include the 2021 season. Although the department agreed to improve inspections, they only got worse.
In total, the report found problems with about 73 per cent of reviewed quarantine inspections in 2020, which rose to 88 per cent in 2021.
Of the outbreak inspections reviewed in 2021, 60 per cent did not contain enough information to conclude whether sick or symptomatic workers received separate isolation quarters and about 80 per cent were inactive for over a month, long after the 14-day isolation period would be required.
The department only conducted about half of all its required post-quarantine inspections. Inspectors did not interview the required number of workers about their living conditions in about half of the reviewed inspections.
In 2020, 99.6 per cent of inspected employers were found compliant with regulations and in 2021, 100 per cent were found compliant.
The report listed factors behind the inadequate inspections, including a lack of understanding of pandemic requirements, inspectors having trouble managing the number of inspections assigned to them, inspectors lacking support and oversight, poor interviews with workers, and an inadequate control process.
The department agreed with all the report’s findings and recommendations. A national steering committee was formed in May 2021 to develop a plan to “identify, implement, and track improvements to inspections,” which the department stated it will “closely monitor.”
“We have already taken steps to improve the quality and timeliness of our inspections, reduce backlogs, and increase resources, and we are now better able to support our inspection staff,” said Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough in a Dec. 9 2021 statement.
Qualtrough said Deputy Minister Graham Flack will guarantee all inspectors receive supplementary training before March 2022, ensure action is taken within 24 hours of a worker being identified as at-risk, develop a plan to reduce backlogs, and have 80 per cent of inspection files without substantive errors by March 2022, then 90 per cent by September. Report 13 can be found on the Auditor General’s website www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/docs/parl_oag_202112_02_e.pdf