By Jensen, Randy on May 16, 2020.
Recent major COVID-19 outbreaks at the Cargill High River and the JBS Brooks meat processing facilities have put the spotlight on how Canadian companies and employers treat Temporary Foreign Workers, says Marco Luciano, director of Migrante Canada, and the sight it reveals is not pretty.
Luciano spoke during the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs weekly YouTube livestream speaker series on Thursday. He said unequal power relationships between employers and migrant workers, whom he referred to as being “indentured” because they are forced to serve only one employer while working in Canada, leads to abuses and exploitation in many instances.
And yet Canada’s food industry could not operate without them, he says.
“The whole Temporary Foreign Worker program,” says Luciano, “the migrants that come to Canada, is integral to Canada’s food chain. Migrants plant our food, prepare our protein, sell it in grocery stores or serve it in restaurants. They are even in the food delivery business. Migrants are vital to Canadians’ food security.”
Even in a unionized environment like Cargill High River, migrants are often fearful to raise their voices because they know the company could ship them out of the country at any time, he says. That’s why despite union demands to shut down, and the obvious safety failures seen at the plant where worker representatives weren’t even given a seat at the table on the occupational health and safety planning committee, migrant workers continued to go to work, and even now continue to pay the price for doing so with their lives and their health.
“When their visa is tied to one employer, that’s a problem generally because the worker becomes subservient to the employer,” stated Luciano. “A great example in the meat plants now, in Cargill and JBS É Migrant workers are pressured to go back to work in a workplace that is at the epicentre of COVID in Alberta. Of course, they are afraid to go to work. In Cargill there are now three deaths in the workplace and in the community that is related to the plant. At the same time, these workers are also afraid to lose their jobs because for them losing their job means deportation. Those are the hard choices that many migrants in the meat plants are facing now.”
He said the recent happenings at the meat packing plants is just the tip of the iceberg for many migrant workers.
“Migrant workers are an indentured workforce,” he explained. “Migrant workers experience abuse at the hands of third-party recruiters, many of whom are guised as immigration consultants in Canada, and pay thousands of dollars for various applications or assistance throughout the process. It’s an illegal practice in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, but in Alberta many still get away with it. The workers are paying approximately $5,000 to $20,000 to recruiters and brokers. They are also faced with cultural isolation.”
Luciano explained this point further.
“They are indentured to their employers, many of them can’t leave their workplace,” he said. “They lack access to government bodies. And not only that, as I mentioned earlier, there is that fear to seek assistance. They don’t want to aggravate the relationship with their employers. And, of course, racism and discrimination is heightened when a crisis hits.”
As an example, Luciano explained how the failures of the company to protect the health and safety of workers at the Cargill High River and the JBS Brooks meat plants were put off on the shoulders of migrant workers through various forms of racist language and assumptions, instead of being focused where they truly belong: on unsafe management decisions.
“It is usually migrants and people of colour, minorities, who are the scapegoats of this crisis,” he said. “We experienced that during the economic downturn in 2016, where migrants were being blamed for stealing ‘Alberta jobs.’ Now, of course, COVID comes and we hear the first reaction when we see Dr. Hinshaw say in the news that ‘workers at Cargill live together and carpool,’ which is the source of the so-called COVID in the meat plant. It created a lot of backlash in the community.”
Luciano concluded by saying Canada has a strange and somewhat dysfunctional relationship with migrant workers. On the one hand, it desperately needs them to take on jobs, especially in child care and within the agriculture and food industries, Canadians won’t do. On the other hand, it does not wish to give those workers the respect they deserve for filling these vital jobs in Canadian society.
Next week SACPA will host two YouTube livestream events instead of one. On Tuesday eminent professor Sylvain Charlebois will give a presentation entitled: “Food production is an essential service: Are governments providing farmers with adequate aid during COVID-19?” at 11 a.m. SACPA will also convene at its usual time at 10 a.m. on Thursday for a presentation which dares to ask the question: “Should people breaking COVID-19 social distancing rules be punished?” See sacpa.ca for more details.
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