Migrant farm workers allege pressure to sign away movement rights amid COVID-19
OTTAWA -- Some temporary foreign workers on Canadian farms are being asked to sign away their right to leave the properties where they’re employed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to multiple workers and advocates.
CTV News has obtained a copy of one of these agreements, which asks the employee to allow their employer to “source and provide food provisions” for them -- which the employee will pay for out of their wages.
“I _____(worker) acknowledge I do have the choice to visit the grocery facility and purchase my own food supplies. I have made the decision not to do so, in the best interest of my own health and those that I may interact with in a public setting,” the agreement reads.
Despite the contract’s use of the word “choice,” advocates and workers say the agreement provides nothing of the sort.
“These aren’t consensual contracts. These are contracts that are being signed where the option is to either sign the contract or be terminated and deported,” said Fay Faraday, a social justice lawyer and professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School.
“They can't send money home to their families, they can't go to a phone where they can call their families, or to somewhere where they have internet access, they are held on the properties in some cases, with private security, to prevent them from leaving.”
In addition to the restrictions on the workers’ movements, Faraday said employers are overspending on the workers’ groceries or buying food they can’t eat.
“I’ve been hearing from workers who do not have enough food, who are being given food that is not culturally appropriate, and in some cases are being charged for food at more than what they would pay for it if they were shopping themselves,” she said.
In an audio recording obtained by CTV News, one migrant worker said he felt like a “prisoner.” CTV News also obtained texts from a migrant worker who said his movements have been restricted -- and his employer has threatened to end his contract, forcing him to return to his country.
“I cant go to the store cant go no ware,” the migrant worker wrote in the message. “i need stuff at the store…an cant go.”
“They say we must not…an if we do they goin to send us home.”
COVID-19 cases, meanwhile, have exploded among migrant workers. Three migrant workers have died from the illness, and over 1,300 have fallen ill, according to Faraday. Now, the Windsor-Essex region is one of Canada’s coronavirus hotspots -- with many of the reported cases coming from the agri-farm sector.
Due to the precarious status of temporary foreign workers within Canada, it can be difficult for them to speak out when their employers take advantage of them or subject them to substandard work conditions -- something the Migrant Workers Association of Canada (MWAC) says has gone on for "decades" amid "unheeded warnings.”
“It’s employers making these decisions for migrants who don’t have the ability to protect themselves. They’re being locked into the very houses that they are getting COVID-19 in. So they’re actually being infected in this process,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of MWAC, in an interview.
Hussan said that “thousands” of migrant farm workers across the country are “trapped” by their employers.
“What we’re seeing is the federal government has created an immigration system where employers have so much power that they are able to control people’s basic human rights and their ability to move, and that is completely unjust, unfair, and should not be allowed to happen,” he said.
In response to the allegations of mistreatment, a spokesperson for Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough emphasized that temporary foreign workers have “the same rights to workplace protections” as Canadians with full citizenship.
“Workers are to enjoy freedom of movement (with the exception of mandatory quarantine on arrival), as would anyone in Canadian society. The TFW Program does not provide employers with any right to limit the free movement of workers,” said Marielle Hossack, Qualtrough’s spokesperson, in a statement.
Just last week, the government also announced just shy of $59 million in fresh funds to protect the "health and safety" of temporary foreign workers. Trudeau said the funds would go towards ensuring "more farm inspections," providing "emergency relief when needed" and improving "the overall living conditions on farms.”
"We look at the tragedies that have hit temporary foreign workers community with deep sorrow," Trudeau said.
"This is something that is on Canadians, we require support from people from around the world to grow our food, to harvest our food, to get food on Canadians' plates."
However, despite the promises from the federal government, Hussan says a bigger fix is needed.
“The responsibility lies with the federal government who has created the system,” he said.
“That’s why we’re calling for full and permanent immigration status for all.”