Workers speak out for International Migrants Day: open letter

The below letter is compiled from workers at farms where there are ongoing COVID outbreaks, and includes the workers’ own words in a second short letter.

TO:     Cabinet Committee on COVID-19 

The Right Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister
The Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister, and Committee Chair
The Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, President of the Treasury Board, and Committee Vice-chair
The Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry
The Hon. Bill Morneau, Minister of Finance
The Hon. Melanie Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages
The Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion
The Hon. Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health
The Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
The Hon. Kirsty Duncan, Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Ontario Command Table COVID-19

The Hon. Doug Ford, Premier of Ontario
The Hon. Christine Elliott, Minister of Health
The Hon. Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Long-Term Care
The Hon. Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development
Helen Angus, Deputy Minister of Health, and Chair of the Command Table
Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health, Public Health Ontario
Dr. Peter Donnelly, President & CEO

RE: OUTBREAKS AT ONTARIO FARMS AND WORKERS’ RESPONSES

Today, on International Migrants’ Day, it angers us to report that there are multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at farms across Ontario. Some of these farms have had multiple outbreaks since the start of this pandemic. Since we last wrote in support of migrant farmworkers, who numbered in the thousands during the first wave, the province and federal governments have taken little to no action. Their only actions to date have been to provide funds to the employers, who we have repeatedly stated are not doing enough to protect their workers.

The following letter provides an overview of workers’ concerns. They have decided to speak about the conditions they are still made to work under, or quarantined within, because neither their employers nor provincial nor federal officials have taken this pandemic seriously enough. We have anonymized their names and their employers to protect workers’ safety.

All the workers we spoke to have stated that there are many cases of COVID at their workplace. Yet, their employers have either refused to disclose this information, or they have taken steps to protect themselves (through quarantine), while forcing their workers to continue reporting for work. One worker stated that their employer has known about outbreaks in their workplace for months, and yet only informed workers about the newest outbreak this month. Another worker only learned of COVID-positive cases in their workplace from other workers who tested positive. Some workers do not know their COVID status because their employers have not allowed them to get tested if they are not showing symptoms, or else have tested them and have not informed them of their own test results. Many workers are working without knowing whether they are COVID positive.

Multiple workers spoke of a lack of appropriate COVID-19 protocols, both in their workplaces and in the shared accommodations provided to them by their employers. Some worked with appropriate social distancing, but others had no such protections and worked in close contact with co-workers who later tested positive for COVID. At their bunkhouses, multiple people share bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. Some report dozens of people using common spaces without appropriate sanitation.

Workplace protections must go beyond providing PPE, as employers are still not taking appropriate measures to sanitize workplaces, and are placing the onus on workers to take responsibility for COVID outbreaks, rather than addressing systemic workplace issues. This has created a stressful and toxic working environment, where workers are concerned for their health, and for their jobs if they are believed to violate workplace policies.

One worker reported that they were given a warning when they refused to rewear dirty masks. Other farm employers provided almost nothing at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing workers to rely on their own funds for appropriate PPE. The disinfection processes used at some greenhouses are not safe to work within, and yet a worker stated that they were made to return to freshly sprayed greenhouses and breathe unsafe air.

In the midst of COVID concerns, workers continue to deal with long-standing health and safety issues. They work long hours with few breaks, including bathroom breaks, and receive warnings if they take time off for their own health and in light of the exhausting, thankless work they do. They are told to work with chemicals they are not properly protected to use, and for long periods that are hazardous to their health – they report having skin irritation and respiratory problems, among other issues. When they inform their employers about these issues, their concerns are dismissed, or worse – they face reprisal.

The workers who spoke to us understand that their employers care more about profits than they do about the health and safety of their workers. While their employers get tested, stay quarantined, and deny COVID outbreaks to Ministry of Labour investigators, workers are told to report to work – in the conditions we illustrated above.

The workers want Canadians to know how they are being treated. Migrant farmworkers come to Canada on closed (tied) work permits, and work to support their families back home. They cannot change their employer except by applying for the open work permit for vulnerable workers, which creates additional institutional and bureaucratic barriers. Employers can take advantage of workers’ precarity and know that workers have little power to change their circumstances.

Workers have stated that this is slavery. They know that if they speak up about their treatment, they can easily be terminated and can be blacklisted from Canada’s agricultural worker programs, so they can never return to Canada for work. Some have reported that workers who have engaged in work stoppages to protest their treatment do not know whether they will be called back for the next season, now that they have been sent home.

Collectively, the workers demand the following:

  • That the government shuts down farms where there are COVID outbreaks;
  • That workers are quarantined and paid during this time, whether or not they test positive for COVID;
  • The provision of paid sick days;
  • That social distancing and disinfection protocols are implemented at workplaces and in bunkhouses to reduce the risk of transmission;
  • That employers are honest and open about COVID-19 outbreaks and workers’ COVID statuses;
  • That consular officials advocate for worker safety and protection;
  • That there are proactive inspections and changes to workplace laws that protect workers;
  • That migrant workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are provided with open work permits and permanent status on arrival.

Migrant farmworkers want fair treatment and respect, which they deserve as human beings. This letter is to alert you, once again, to their concerns, which are anonymized to protect their safety. We urge you to take immediate action in protecting them, and to hold their employers accountable so that the responsibility for curbing the spread of the pandemic does not fall on workers, who have been made vulnerable by the system that brought them to Canada.

Sincerely,

Justicia/Justice for Migrant Workers

RE: OPEN LETTER FROM MIGRANT WORKERS IMPACTED BY COVID OUTBREAKS

We are workers from farms where there are current covid outbreaks. We want to express what we felt during this time of pandemic.

What we only want is fair treatment from our employer, manager and all the persons in charge.

As of now, we are waiting for word from them to inform us about what is happening to our farm. We learned that some of our co-workers are positive for the Coronavirus. That information came from those people who tested positive. While the office is still denying that fact. What they want from us workers is to continue working as long as we don’t have symptoms. They are only thinking of the company’s income and forget about the workers safety and welfare.

Same as PR and Canadian citizens, we are humans too that are prone to the virus. We are expecting them to come and disinfect the place where the positive  workers stay while they are working here, but no action at all.

They told us to work if no symptoms and if we want to make sure, we can do swab testing but no pay at all if it turns out negative.

We are addressing these concerns to the people who are willing to help and hope the government would consider us Migrant Workers too, that what we want is respect from you people. Just for humanitarian consideration, we came here to work for our family back home and to earn a living.

Not considering the abuse they are doing during work. Hope the government comes and asks us  workers about our situation. We want to cry out for help but there is this fear that if we talk, our employer will kick us out from the company, considering that we have closed permits. Without status is a big problem for us MIGRANT WORKERS.

We are the people who are greatly affected from this pandemic. And hoping this will reach the government.

Thank you.

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