By Patrick Meagher and Connor Lynch
Ontario farmers who hire foreign workers are frustrated and angry with recent attacks against them.
Troubles began for farmers after three foreign workers died from COVID-19. Some Caribbean countries stopped sending workers. Mexico announced last month it would stop sending migrant workers to Canadian farms with outbreaks, then backed off when Canada promised increased security measures. Some fruit and vegetable farms are now short-staffed. Then a pro-union migrant workers group posted a report that got a lot of media attention and alleged systemic flaws in the foreign workers program and called for reform. The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has turned the deaths of three migrant workers into fodder for unionization.
On the group’s website it writes that last year “The Migrant Rights Network — Canada’s largest migrant justice coalition — wrote several letters to federal and provincial agencies outlining concerns from migrant workers. All were ignored. And now Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos are dead.”
Except that Romero and Santos did not die because of poor working conditions. They died from COVID-19. We’re in a pandemic in which even the authorities are finding that the right thing to do is a moving target.
No matter, suddenly a small advocacy group is trying to turn three tragic COVID deaths into an issue about wages and workers’ rights. How is that even possible? About 54,000, mostly Mexican and Jamaican men travel thousands of kilometres to come to Canada year after year because they can earn good money for their families. They want to come here.
“I love the work up here,” said Jamaican Olwaird Black, who works at Avonmore Berry Farm. “I don’t miss home. It feels like home.”
Chatham-Kent area farmer Hector Delanghe has relied on migrant workers for decades to get his crops planted and harvested. One worker retired after 32 years and two years later returned for a visit. “Doesn’t that make you feel good?” Delanghe said.
The alliance for change, however, complains that the workers have to work long hours. But that’s fantastic. The foreign workers aren’t in Canada to go to the parks. They didn’t leave their families to sit in a bunkhouse and shoot the breeze night after night. They want to work as much as they can to bring home as much as they can.
Most people in Canada have worked at jobs where longer hours are offered and those who want the money take it. It’s called being offered an opportunity. In this case, after one week, the migrant workers are sending home money to their wives, their mothers, their sisters and cousins.
As for poor wages, $15 an hour goes a long way in Mexico. A Mexican worker in Canada, working a 16-hour day would earn CDN $240, or about 3,750 pesos, equivalent to two weeks wages for a labour job outside of Mexico’s large cities. The so-called alliance could ruin a good thing. Once you bring in a union, you immediately cut the workers pay as he is required to pay union dues. You also increasingly frustrate the employer with conditions and, in this case, the employer is already paying for lodging and the return flight home. But, hey, now the union would get paid. All migrant workers are also covered under OHIP.
Nevertheless, the alliance for change report released last month said the group spoke with at least 180 workers, speaking on behalf of more than 1,000 workers, who called their hotline with complaints ranging from cramped bunkhouses to language issues to employer threats.
Specific complaints included 316 workers who said they were not paid, had income clawed back, or were only partially paid during isolation period. Another 437 said that because they don’t have permanent resident status they were unable to access many of their rights, including access to health care. Over 200 said they had “severe restrictions” on their mobility including being unable to leave their housing, unable to send money home, to buy phone credits or buy food.
Another 128 workers reported working “for weeks without a day off, being forced to work long hours, and suffering increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace of work.”
At this point one might be forgiven for questioning the veracity of the report. Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie questions it. He was scathing of the report. “It doesn’t matter what business or sector of society, bad apples exist everywhere,” he said. “ But specifically to that report, it’s just so full of holes.”
Particularly, the issues around bunkhouses, he said. “As humans, would it make sense that we would cram 40 people into the bunkhouse (and) make them climb over each other?”
The compounding factor is that bunkhouses are inspected by no less than four separate agencies in three levels of government: local bylaw, the local health unit, Service Canada, and finally the provincial Ministry of Labour. And while workers may well be tied to one farm while they’re there, they can switch to another operation between seasons for various reasons, he said. “If we’re not treating our workers well, why would they come back?”
Delanghe and Currie agree that the current crisis might be a wedge issue for unionization. The Ontario Public Services and Employment Union stated: “it’s time (migrant workers) started to get the benefits and rights the rest of us take for granted.”
Unionization, said Delanghe, would be a death knell for many farms in the seasonal produce industry. “If we have a union, they could put me out of work tomorrow morning.”
The main issue is safety, Delanghe said. And the biggest obstacle to migrant workers’ safety is whether workers feel comfortable asserting their rights, he said. “If the workers feel comfortable communicating, everything’s there for them. That’s the big question, do they feel comfortable saying they can’t go to work today. Or (do they have to worry) am I not coming back next year? I couldn’t work under that situation.”
The onus, said Delanghe, is on the farmer to make sure that the workers feel comfortable. Meantime, if there are bad apple employers, the federal and provincial governments should have a plan to root them out.
As for one Jamaican worker without teeth, he returned to the Avonmore berry farm with new dentures he could now afford and, for the first time in years, a great smile. He will be among the vast majority of migrant workers who return home in late fall with the latest in technology — brand-new televisions, laptops, refrigerators — and more than enough money to feed an extended family.