Coronavirus: Canada’s migrant farm workers face fatal COVID-19 outbreaks, alleged mistreatment

Lisa Bibb tears up thinking of her migrant staff as she stands in the middle of dozens of rows of apples — what her usual workers from Mexico would be tending to right now if they were on her farm.

For the past couple of years, she and her family, who run Hy-Hope Farm in Durham Region, have hired four to six farmers from out of country as part of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, they made the decision to leave the workers — her apple specialists — at home in Mexico this year.

Raul Gonzales, a temporary worker from Mexico, holds apples he helped to grow at Hy-Hope Farm in Ashburn, Ont., in 2018.
Raul Gonzales, a temporary worker from Mexico, holds apples he helped to grow at Hy-Hope Farm in Ashburn, Ont., in 2018. Lisa Bibb/Hy-Hope Farm

“We feel a little bit of guilt because we understand that they rely on us to support their families,” Bibb says, her eyes red with tears. “It was kind of a … tug of war because, you know, at the same time, they might be safe at home, but they might not have the funds that they need to make it through the year.”

Overall, tens of thousands of seasonal migrant workers come to Canada every summer. In 2019, the federal government says it approved 46,707 positions under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

About 40 per cent of the farm workers are located on farms in Ontario, 32 per cent in Quebec, 18 per cent in B.C., and about three per cent in Nova Scotia, according to numbers released in July by Employment and Social Development Canada.

It was not immediately clear how many farms cancelled their seasonal workers in 2020 like Bibb, but a number of farm owners decided to stick with the program in the middle of the pandemic and now, many migrant employees are facing a crisis.

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In Ontario alone, more than 1,300 foreign workers on farms have contracted the novel coronavirus over the summer, and three people have died during outbreaks, according to advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers.

12:56 Ontario migrant worker demands more protection from federal government during COVID-19 pandemic

Ontario migrant worker demands more protection from federal government during COVID-19 pandemic

After hearing about the outbreaks and deaths among temporary foreign farm workers in the province, she said, “All of us couldn’t bear the thought of if that happened to somebody who’s got little kids and a wife at home, and they’re coming here for us.”

Justice for Migrant Workers alleges many of the migrants who are in Canada this year have been facing mistreatment, including being fed insufficient meals while in quarantine and staying in cramped bunk beds separated by pieces of cardboard — a space that would have workers sleep too close together to physically distance and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In contrast, Bibb’s workers stay in an on-site cabin with an open-concept kitchen, a living room and multiple beds spread out far enough that these would have allowed the employees to physically distance from each other.

This house is where her grandparents’ had lived when they were working on the Ashburn, Ont., farm.

The left photo is a still of a video showing bunk beds where migrant workers allegedly sleep at Double Diamond Farms, a southwestern Ontario farm, and on the right is a photo of a bed a temporary foreign worker would sleep in at Hy-Hope Farm in Durham Region.
The left photo is a still of a video showing bunk beds where migrant workers allegedly sleep at Double Diamond Farms, a southwestern Ontario farm, and on the right is a photo of a bed a temporary foreign worker would sleep in at Hy-Hope Farm in Durham Region. Justice for Migrant Workers/YouTube

Bibb says of the workers, “We hope that we treat them really well … Anybody that works on our farm, you just become a member of the family.”

Justice for Migrant Workers claims the seasonal migrant staff on Canadian farms are also going hungry. A shriveled slice of pepperoni pizza as well as a tiny scoop of plain rice, steamed vegetables and a small piece of chicken are two of the meals depicted in photos the advocacy group says were taken at various hotels where migrants have been quarantining.

“We should all be … outraged that so many people are falling through the cracks during the pandemic,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the advocacy organization. “The people who grow our food are going hungry.

“The government, the employers … no one is raising a finger.”

Two meals allegedly served to migrant farm workers while they quarantined in hotels after arriving in Canada this year.
Two meals allegedly served to migrant farm workers while they quarantined in hotels after arriving in Canada this year. Chris Ramsaroop/Justice for Migrant Workers

In a statement to Global News, the Employment and Social Development ministry said the Temporary Foreign Worker Program “has a comprehensive compliance framework in place to protect temporary foreign workers from mistreatment.”

Read more: Ontario migrant worker demands more protection from federal government amid COVID-19 pandemic

Ramsaroop says a migrant worker took the video of the bunk beds temporary foreign employees allegedly sleep in at a farm in Kingsville, Ont., a town in southwestern Ontario, an area where there have been ongoing outbreaks among farm workers.

Global News emailed and left a voicemail with Double Diamond, the farm where the worker allegedly took the footage, but it has not responded to our requests for comment.

Two temporary foreign workers, Erika Zavala and Jesús Molina, who came into Canada from Mexico, were fired from a farm in British Columbia after they invited in two visitors — advocates for migrant workers’ rights.

One of the advocates says the workers had cleared the visit with their supervisor, but days after the visit, they were fired on July 1.

Erika Zavala (left) and Jesús Molina take a photo together at Bylands, the B.C. farm that fired them in July for inviting two people onto the property. Bylands tells Global News this violated their policy about “having visitors on site.”
Erika Zavala (left) and Jesús Molina take a photo together at Bylands, the B.C. farm that fired them in July for inviting two people onto the property. Bylands tells Global News this violated their policy about “having visitors on site.”. Amy Cohen/Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture

“It was really sad because we were doing things right and we were doing a good job,” Molina said in Spanish from Guadalajara, Mexico, on a video call with Global News.

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“But (the manager) took the decisions … I think it is a personal decision. It was not company policy or anything like that. He did not want to keep us there and he looked for an excuse.”

Global News emailed Bylands, the Kelowna farm where Molina and Zavala worked, and the company said this in a statement: “Bylands Nurseries discontinued these individuals’ employment following multiple instances where they did not adhere to workplace policies.”

It continues, “The dismissal was due to multiple infractions, following orientation on the workplace policies and warnings about leaving the premises and having visitors on site.”

Read more: Activists hold protest in Toronto over treatment of migrant workers during coronavirus pandemic

In a follow-up email, Global asked the farm what exactly these policies are, but the farm has yet to respond.

“(The manager) never said that visits were not permitted,” said Molina.

The tricky thing is that their workplaces are also their housing,” says labour and human rights lawyer Susanna Quail of seasonal migrant workers’ living situations in Canada. “There is a temptation for employers to say … ‘One can come and go from this far.’ And that means that a migrant worker can’t leave their place of employment but also their home.

“It would mean that a migrant worker has no access to advocates who might assist them if they’re experiencing abuse or exploitation. It would mean that a migrant worker would have no ability to go to a store and buy a mask if they’re not receiving sufficient protective equipment in their employment.”

However, she says, There’s no employer who is allowed to tell a worker, migrant worker or not … ‘You can’t leave your home. You can’t leave the workplace. You are held hostage.’

Migrant workers have all the same rights as Canadian workers other than a right to permanent status in Canada.”

Read more: Migrant workers at Brandon Maple Leaf plant seek shutdown, increased health measures

Temporary foreign workers have been pushing the federal government to grant them this status, which they say will give them more rights and protections, including better access to health care.

In July, the Canadian government announced it would invest more than $50 million to safeguard temporary foreign workers.

1:07 Coronavirus: Trudeau announces $59M investment to protect health and safety of migrant workers

Coronavirus: Trudeau announces $59M investment to protect health and safety of migrant workers

This investment includes “strengthening the employer inspections regime” and improving “employee living quarters.”

Advocates say the government has yet to address the call for permanent residency status for temporary migrant farm workers in Canada.

Read more: Coronavirus: Quebec farms facing lost profits and rotting harvests due to migrant worker shortage

After cancelling her seasonal team from Mexico, Bibb says she hired local students to do the farm work instead. They’re being paid the same wage as the migrant workers, but what is missing is the Mexico team’s expertise growing apples.

The financial consequences of having to fill the foreign workers’ positions “remains to be seen,” Bibb says.

She explains that being able to harvest and package the produce for sale as efficiently as they usually do it could be a potential problem for them as some of their staff head back to school in September.

That’s when the Bibbs may feel the void of their “family” in Mexico the most — the migrant employees normally work on the farm from May until November. Bibb says she plans to bring them in again next year.

“One hundred per cent, hopefully, they will be back.”

— With files from Mike De Souza

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