(File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / tony4urban)(File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / tony4urban)

New report on the status of temporary foreign workers calls for major reforms

A new report calls for urgent reforms to protect the well-being of temporary foreign workers in Canada.

The United Food and Commercial Workers released the report, The Status of Migrant Agricultural Workers in Canada 2023: Special Health and Safety Report, on Monday.

More than 70,000 migrant workers were employed in Canada's agriculture and agri-food sectors in 2022, many of whom continue to endure unsafe work and the threat of repatriation should they become injured on the job.

According to the union's report, employers repatriated 1,600 workers after workplace accidents not reported to provincial authorities between 2000 and 2022, and the UFCW helped 230 workers deemed victims of employer abuse by the Government of Canada.

The report makes 12 recommendations, including giving foreign workers access to collective bargaining, reducing pesticide use on farms, setting minimum standards for housing, language training for workers, and improving safety training.

It highlights the dangers migrant agricultural workers face, from substandard housing to chemical hazards, in an industry that generated $134.9-billion for the Canadian economy in 2021.

"The tens of thousands of migrant workers are an integral part of the multi-billion dollar Canadian agricultural industry, providing crucial labour while working in conditions that have been described as "systematic slavery" by workers," said the union.

Last September, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, raised concerns about the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, saying employer-specific work permits make workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The report details the stories of repatriated several workers after suffering injuries on the job.

One migrant worker in Southern Ontario said he was presented with a flight ticket back to Mexico when his ankle was broken by a supervisor playing a prank with a cart. Another, who became ill after months of working with pesticides, was pressured to return to Guatemala.

"I was assigned to spray pesticides, something I had never done before. When I asked by supervisor how to protect myself, she asked me if I was gay," said the worker, identified as Gonzalo.

Canada's Attorney General currently faces a $500-million class action filed by two migrant farm workers who claimed temporary foreign worker programs violated their Charter rights. The suit alleges while workers pay into Employment Insurance, they are denied access to the program's benefits. It also alleged the programs were racist because they targeted Black and Indo-Caribbean workers.

The report calls on the federal government to end employer-specific work permits, terminate eligibility for the SAWP and TFWP for employers who withhold personal documents, including passports and health cards, from workers, and sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

It also demands the federal government establish a tribunal to review and appeal repatriation decisions.

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