A rally was held outside Delta MP Carla Qualtrough’s constituency office in Ladner Friday by advocates for migrant workers in Canada, saying the essential workers urgently need the same essential rights as Canadian workers.
The rally was part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign, led by the Migrant Workers Centre and endorsed by 30 organizations.
Several speakers described the challenges faced by temporary foreign workers and called for action by Qualtrough, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, and her government to take action on what’s been described as a continued failure to address the urgent needs of the workers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They said employers are taking advantage of the workers who face low wages and standards as well as a lack of basic rights and services.
The campaign calls on the government to create a permanent residency program for all migrant workers who provide essential services and work in jobs where there are labour shortages.
It also calls on the government to grant open work permits to workers while they are in the process of applying for permanent residence, saying the measure would allow the essential workers to continue working without fearing arrest, detention and removal, and would also allow them to access much-needed services including health care.
The campaign states the changes are urgently needed in light of COVID-19, which has exposed the extent to which the Canadian economy and society depend on migrant workers for various jobs.
The campaign also points out farm workers often live together in employer-provided housing, are driven to farms together in large groups and work in close quarters.
Natalie Drolet with the Migrant Workers Centre told the Optimist more than 1,300 migrant workers in Ontario alone have been infected with COVID-19 and three have died, including one undocumented worker.
“We are trying to raise awareness about the fact that many of these essential workers that Canadians have relied on during this pandemic are out in the farms planting, growing the food that we eat, transporting that food to the grocery stores, working as grocery store clerks, and people in the health care industry on the frontlines. Many of them do not have citizenship in our country or even permanent resident status,” she said.
“It is very difficult for them to come forward to negotiate their working conditions and speak up if they have concerns about the health and safety of their workplace because they have very little bargaining power and if they lose their jobs, they could be removed from Canada. There are some fundamental systemic problems with this program that result in workers not being able to assert their rights and we see with this pandemic how this program fails workers.”
One of the speakers at Friday’s rally was Kumar, a temporary foreign worker who asked Canadians to listen to the suffering of migrant workers.
The Migrant Workers Centre notes that while the federal government recently responded to the vulnerable situation of migrant workers during the pandemic with several measures, including an investment of $58.6 million to protect farm workers from COVID-19, the measures fall significantly short of what the workers need and deserve.
Among the recommendations to the government is providing the workers with services, such as a hotline, dedicated website and legal aid, and establishing a federal-provincial task force to increase the accountability of employers who break the law.
A new report from United Food and Commercial Workers Canada calls for urgent changes to protect the health, safety and rights of tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers.
The union notes the report - The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada, 2020 - calls for 14 legislative and regulatory reforms to a system which currently leaves migrant agricultural workers more vulnerable than Canadian workers to exploitation, health risks and employer reprisal.