Migrant workers are vulnerable at all times, however the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these vulnerabilities. The recent outbreaks amongst works on farms and greenhouses has placed a spotlight on the issues of migrant worker health and safety (CBC News 2020, Guthrie 2020). News stories about the conditions of migrant labourers have increased exponentially from pre-pandemic levels, especially those focused on why agriculture has become the new centre of COVID-19 in Canada.
Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their overcrowded on-farm housing conditions, their dependence on their employers for continued legal employment and re-entry next season, and their lack of access to healthcare. The framing of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) means that migrant workers rely on their employers for housing, transportation, and their continued stay in Canada. Their housing is often extremely cramped with little privacy or space for workers (Mojtehedzadeh 2020). These bunkhouses are also infrequently inspected by government authorities and are only inspected before the migrant workers arrive (Mojtehedzadeh 2020). In addition to cramped housing, migrant workers also have limited access to healthcare in Canada. Their transportation is entirely reliant on their employers – many of whom are restricting workers movement during the pandemic – and there is a significant delay between their arriving in Canada and their receiving a Canadian health card. All of these issues underscore how dependent migrant labourers are on their employers under SAWP. Since workers’ stay in Canada is contingent on their employment, if they lose their job they could be deported. This puts them in a dangerous position that limits their ability to speak out against their working and living conditions, even if their employers are in violation of COVID-19 regulations.
Setting aside all the issues that await them in Canada, COVID-19 has also presented challenges for migrant workers in reaching Canada. The pandemic’s escalation in March led to restricted borders and flights around the world. Workers’ ability to travel to Canada has varied widely by country. Some workers were forced to sign waivers before they were allowed to leave their home country, while others were not allowed to leave at all (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change 2020). Travel complications also arose out of the closure of many embassies and consulates. Many workers in Mexico had to reapply for visas, at considerable cost and loss of time (Richter, Williams, and Skerrit 2020). These delays all result in lost income for migrant labourers.
COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, but migrant labourers are without many of the protections that other Canadian workers have. Their and dependence on their employers for housing, access to healthcare, and access to basic information about their rights means that they are often unable to protect themselves from exploitation and the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Complications arising from travelling during a pandemic have also resulted in lost income. The outbreaks on farms and greenhouses have highlighted the plight of migrant workers and it behooves us to examine why they are so vulnerable.
(2020, June 11). Montérégie farm struggles to contain COVID outbreak among migrant workers. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/foreign-workers-farm-infected-covid-19-1.5607320
Guthrie, J. (2020, May 27). COVID-19 outbreak at Ontario farm highlights deep problems in Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program. Rabble. Retrieved from https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/views-expressed/2020/05/covid-19-outbreak-ontario-farm-highlights-deep-problems
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (2020). Unheeded Warning: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. Retrieved from https://migrantworkersalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Unheeded-Warnings-COVID19-and-Migrant-Workers.pdf
Mojtehedzadeh, S. (2020, May 11). A study urged better standards for migrant workers’ housing. Nothing was done. Now COVID-19 has struck. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/05/11/a-study-urged-better-standards-for-migrant-workers-housing-nothing-was-done-now-covid-19-has-struck.html
Richter, J., Wadhams, N., & Skerritt, J. (2020, March 18). ‘There Won’t Be Anyone to Harvest the Crops.’ Coronavirus Travel Bans Squeeze Migrant Labour. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5805487/migrant-labor-food-production-coronavirus-covid19/