COVID-19’s effects are hitting the most vulnerable in our society particularly hard.
The migrant farm worker population in Canada is among the most vulnerable, and two Mexican workers have died from COVID-19 in this country: 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero and 24-year-old Rogelio Munoz Santos. A third migrant worker, not yet identified, died yesterday in Ontario. Hundreds of migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in outbreaks across that province. Several migrant workers destined for B.C. farms have also been infected by COVID-19.
Mexico’s move to temporarily halt the migration of its farm workers to Canada in the wake of the deaths and COVID-19 infections of several of its migrant workers should be a wake-up call to the federal government and Canadians.
In the best of times, farm work is hard. Farm workers do dangerous but essential work for the Canadian agricultural industry, and musculoskeletal, transportation and other work-related injuries are common.
In Canada, we have many foreign migrant workers doing seasonal agricultural work that Canadians generally won’t perform. Many of them come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Canada has SAWP agreements with several countries, including Mexico, to send farm workers to Canada every year on a temporary basis.
There’s no dedicated path to permanent residency for these workers. They come into Canada, work hard for months, then go back to their countries. Some do this for much of their working lives.
However, this community, which comes into our country and leaves every year, is largely invisible to Canadian society until the occasional news story exposes substandard working conditions or a horrific work-related accident — or a virus starts making them sick and killing them. Unfortunately, that is what is happening now in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, injuries to farm workers were common. From 1990 to 2005, 1,769 people were killed in “agricultural injury events” in Canada. Between 2001 and 2011, 787 migrant farm workers were sent home early after arriving in Ontario largely for medical or surgical reasons, or for external injuries such as poisoning. Unfortunately, there isn’t clear data available on the number of work-related deaths that occur from this group in Canada or following repatriation.
In B.C., there were 82 fatal injuries and 1,407 hospitalizations related to agricultural work from 1990 to 2000. Since B.C. joined the SAWP in 2004, there have been numerous deaths and injuries in farm worker transport in the province, including a 2007 crash that killed three workers and injured 14. These are just some of the many examples of farm worker — including migrant worker — injuries and deaths.
Now, we have COVID-19. These workers were deemed essential. They generally come from humble towns in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. They are very skilled and indeed essential to the Canadian agricultural industry. They came knowing the risks and the need to provide for their families back home.
Hundreds of Mexican workers are now confirmed infected by the coronavirus in Ontario. Many more are suspected to be positive but terrified of being tested.
Who can blame them? Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently acknowledged the fear of being tested and pleaded with workers to get tested. But many workers fear being sent back to Mexico, without work or wages, if they test positive.
A major difficulty lies in how many of the workers live and work in cramped conditions where physical distancing is impossible. They are scared of getting the virus but terrified of not being able to support their families at home. The Mexican government took the extraordinary step of halting its export of farm workers to Canada, an export the Mexican government usually strongly supports. The Mexican government lifted the ban Sunday after negotiating improved safety provisions with the Canadian government.
What is the solution here? I spent years in my PhD dissertation trying to figure that out. Unions can help in many similar situations. The problem is that the structure of the program and the nature of the work hamper both the ability of unions to organize and and enforcement of occupational safety regulations.
Unionization, increased monitoring by governments at all levels, and good decent farm employers can help, but they can’t solve the safety problems inherent in the cycle of temporary worker migration. It breeds worker fear of retaliation and expulsion from the program and employer and government complacency. It leads to needless injuries and deaths.
Enough is enough.
The solution is clear — give these workers a chance to live permanently in Canada. Give them a chance to escape a never-ending cycle that perpetuates injury and disease. We do this for other streams of temporary workers we need in Canada. Live-in caregivers can apply for permanent residency after two years of work in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should finally enact a dedicated path to permanent residency for workers coming from SAWP countries and agricultural workers entering under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program from other countries.
The next time anyone in Canada is shopping for fruits or vegetables in their supermarket, they should spare a moment to think about the farm worker who might have been terrified of getting COVID-19 in cramped living quarters, or getting injured picking that fruit for you. That worker might have been coming here for 20 years, year after year, and just got diagnosed with COVID-19.
Is it such a big price to pay for our society to give these workers and their families a chance to live a safe, healthy life in Canada permanently?