Feds failed to ensure farms protected migrant workers from COVID-19: report
Compliance & Enforcement Health & Safety COVID-19 migrant workers
By Lee Berthiaume
OTTAWA — The federal government is failing to ensure agricultural producers are properly protecting migrant workers from COVID-19, according to Canada’s auditor general, including in some cases where there is evidence to suspect health and safety violations.
The explosive finding is contained in a new report from auditor general Karen Hogan released Thursday, following numerous outbreaks among temporary foreign workers living in cramped conditions on farms since the start of the pandemic.
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change says it has confirmed the deaths of six of migrant workers from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, though the advocacy group says the actual number is likely far higher.
The Liberal government promised new requirements for agricultural producers as well as tens of millions in new funding at the start of the pandemic to protect the roughly 50,000 people who come to Canada as seasonal farm workers each year.
Those new requirements included proper accommodations for quarantining migrant workers for 14 days after their arrival in Canada as well as those who test positive for COVID-19, and measures to manage outbreaks.
Yet while inspectors at Employment and Social Development Canada deemed virtually all farms compliant with those regulations, Hogan says the vast majority of those passing grades came without proper inspections.
“We found that inspectors assessed almost all employers as compliant on both COVID-19 requirements and basic living conditions without gathering sufficient evidence,” Hogan said during a news conference.
“Timeliness was also a concern with many quarantine inspections still incomplete long after the end of workers’ mandatory 14-day quarantine period,” she added.
“We also found that outbreak inspections provided little assurance that employers were providing sick or symptomatic workers with accommodations where they could isolate properly or even that basic living conditions were otherwise maintained.”
The auditor general’s investigation also found inspectors at times did not follow up on evidence suggesting employers were violating requirements, and instead continued to list them as compliant.
Hogan could not draw a direct link between the issues identified in her report and any deaths among migrant workers, saying more information is needed. But she said proper quarantine and isolation measures are “fundamental” for protecting others.
“And temporary foreign workers are relying on their employers to provide that to them,” she told reporters. “And here, what we found was that (ESDC) was not doing a good job at making sure that employers were meeting those requirements.”
The auditor general’s report says a number of problems are to blame, including excessive workloads for inspectors, many of whom are relatively new to their positions, and a lack of urgency within the department.
It also notes all inspections have been conducted virtually since March 2020. Those virtual inspections have largely relied employers submitting pictures and videos of their facilities, as well as interviews with workers.
While the audit was supposed to cover the first nine months of the pandemic, the report says the problems were so troubling that the auditor general’s office raised them with senior officials in December 2020 and again in February 2021.
Yet despite assurances from senior officials at Employment and Social Development Canada about their commitment to addressing the shortcoming, the auditor general found the problems actually got worse over the past year.
“We found that the quality of the department’s quarantine inspections worsened during spring and summer 2021, with problems in about 88 per cent of the quarantine inspections we reviewed,” the report reads.
The department also came in for criticism over its failure to establish a minimum standard that employers have to meet when it comes to housing migrant workers, even though it first promised to do so in 2018, two years before the pandemic.
Among those pre-pandemic concerns were overcrowding and poor quality accommodations, issues that had been raised by workers, advocacy groups and even foreign governments whose citizens have tended to come to Canada to work.
“COVID-19 provides another example of why the department needs to prioritize the health and safety of temporary foreign workers and deal with accommodation and that are overcrowded and otherwise inadequate,” Hogan told reporters.
“It is long past time to fix the situation for temporary foreign workers who come to Canada.”
In response to Hogan’s report on Thursday, Syed Hussan of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change said the federal government has proven once and for all that it is unable or unwilling of protecting temporary foreign workers.
“The only solution is full and permanent immigration status,” he told The Canadian Press. “We can’t have a fair society without equal rights and equal rights are not possible without equal immigration status for every resident of the country.”
Conservative employment critic Stephanie Kusie described the report’s finding as “unacceptable,” particularly after the auditor general raised the issue with the government twice only to see the problems worsen.