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COVID-19 exposing Canada’s dependency on temporary foreign workers in the agri-food sector

COVID-19Labour

A temporary agricultural worker tends to vegetables at a farm. Photo from Unsplash.

Edible mushrooms are a cash crop for Canada’s agricultural capitalists, and the multimillion-dollar industry is tied to high foreign demand. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the domestic mushroom industry has faced a 30 to 50 percent loss in production that has forced the closure of many farms, and placed the health and status of the majority of the industry’s foreign workers at risk.

Nearly 200,000 tons of mushrooms are produced in Canada annually, according to Statistics Canada. The province of Ontario accounts for half of national mushroom production and growing mushrooms is labour intensive. Given the short amount of time it takes to grow mushrooms, the industry is always harvesting. Fresh mushrooms are harvested daily by around 4,000 farmhands, nearly a quarter of whom are temporary foreign workers with year-round jobs.

On the farm, mushrooms are kept in the dark because they grow that way. The same can be said for migrant workers, who are subject to subpar working and living conditions as harvesting labourers, without knowledge of their rights or the health risks that are supposed to be provided by their employers. Working together in close quarters, picking and packing the product, harvesters are at high risk of infection by COVID-19.

This is what happened to the mushroom workers at the Ravine Mushroom Farm in Vaughan, Ontario, just north of Toronto. In early July, at least 30 mushroom harvesters tested positive for COVID-19, despite the roll out of relaxed measures for the general public, according to York Region Public Health.

The local health agency said, in an online public notice, that it is investigating a “workplace cluster” of cases of the coronavirus at the farm. The workers who tested positive were housed in employee accommodations where physical distancing is being enforced. While 24 of the 30 workers are declared residents of York Region, the agency did not disclose where the other six are from.

Migrants rights advocate Jesson Reyes says this omission is “not a coincidence” as they are being hidden for a reason. In April last year, four Filipino mushroom farm workers in Ontario bravely came out to the public as undocumented workers to tell their fateful stories of being trafficked. Tired of being scared and keeping their situation a secret, the workers filed a civil lawsuit against Ravine Mushroom Farm and a third party recruitment agency (Link4Staff Inc.) for violating the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act. The Justice for Mushroom 4 Campaign was started by workers and activists to demand better protection for migrant workers in the province.

“J4M4 workers testified to working extremely long hours, picking mushrooms while standing on 6-foot platforms (trolleys). The recruitment agency Link4Staff stole thousands of dollars through their wages and also slapped on exorbitant recruitment fees,” said Reyes of Migrants Resource Centre Canada (MRCC). “We must ensure going back to ‘normal’ means meaningful reforms to provincial labour standards and immigration policies centred on workers’ rights and dignity.”

Advocacy groups, like MRCC, have been urging the federal government to implement additional protections for migrant workers, who were particularly vulnerable even before the pandemic. But so far, the federal approach has been mostly reactive.

Annually, Canadian farmers rely on more than 50,000 migrant workers who arrive through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) signed as bilateral agreements with Mexico and 11 Caribbean countries decades ago. These “temporary” farm workers comprise about 60 percent of all of Canada’s migrant workers.

SAWP is the “lower skilled” component within the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) that requires employers to obtain a Labour Market Impact Assessment, streaming migrant workers to limited employment options. Migrant farm workers in Ontario are covered by provincial health insurance for as long as they are employed, but the conditions of their employment make access to benefits difficult. They are tied to a specific sector on Canada’s national commodities list for the duration of a specific contract, and they are not permitted to work elsewhere or for another employer. This is characteristic of Canada’s immigration regime.

On the other side of the regime is the International Mobility Program (IMP). Migrant workers who are considered “high skilled” can be hired without the need for a Labour Market Impact Assessment. They are given broader economic, cultural, or other advantages, and reciprocal benefits enjoyed by Canadian citizens and permanent residents. The differential treatment of these migrant workers then feeds a vicious circle that normalizes and entrenches a two-tier labour market.

Amid the pandemic, the federal program’s continued admittance of migrant farm workers to Canada, granting exemptions from the emergency travel ban, demonstrates our capitalist system’s drive for commodity food production instead of “steaming off”—an industry euphemism for destroying mushrooms.

Workers from Mexico account for the largest SAWP participants employed in Canadian farms. Many do not speak English and fewer than half of them have primary school education, according to the Mexican Ministry of Labour. Rounding the top five source countries for the agricultural workers stream are Jamaica, India, Guatemala, and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, migrant workers and their organizations have also spoken out on the need for greater protections and permanent immigration status for all if we are to move towards a more equitable post-COVID economy.

In Ontario, more than 1,100 migrant workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, many of them farm workers. Already, three of those infected have died. This negligence, stemming from conditions before the pandemic, has sparked calls for governing bodies to improve workers’ conditions. Employment and Social Development Canada has received 32 complaints regarding the SAWP since March, yet not a single farm has so far been deemed in violation of any key pandemic-related rules.

COVID-19 will continue to disrupt migration and food production for the foreseeable future. Before the end of 2020, an additional 14,000 migrant workers are expected to arrive in Canada—roughly half are destined for Ontario, many of whom come from Mexico.

A Mexican worker on a farm in Leamington, Ontario said that he has faced more pressure to work this season due to the labour shortages caused by migration difficulties and COVID-19 infections among workers. If migrant workers become ill, they are obliged to self-isolate and do not get paid. As agri-business continues to operate on the backs of migrant workers in the southwestern Ontario region, workers themselves are left on their own dealing with an exploitative migration system on top of a global pandemic.

The agriculture industry’s anxious calls to re-open borders demonstrate the value of migrant labour, and what workers are really owed. Moreover, this shows the complicity of Canadian governments in propping up questionable capitalist schemes based upon the exploitation of the migrant underclass.

Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.

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