Issue 47: How Canada failed its "vital" migrant workforce

With over 600 COVID-19 cases and three dead workers in southwestern Ontario's agricultural sector, the one thing you can't say is that officials weren't warned

Today’s briefing is by Andrew Potter (AP), who is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

IN THE EARLY, PANICKY DAYS OF THE PANDEMIC, one of the more pressing concerns was the sustainability of the nation’s food supply.  Canada closed its border to non-essential travel in early March, and the ban included the temporary foreign workers (TFW) who come into the country every year to work in various sectors including tourism, hospitality, and, most crucially, agriculture. About 60 000 of these workers come to Canada each year, most of them from Mexico, Guatemala, and Jamaica. So the agriculture industry quickly raised alarms about crops not getting planted or harvested, warning that it would lead to higher prices and even food shortages. 

But despite the fact that this was the sort of work Canadians tended to avoid, because of the low pay and the harsh conditions, the country was full of unemployed workers and out-of-school students. Couldn’t they do the seeding and the picking and the harvesting? No, came the answer. Sure the pay is low we were told, but it isn’t menial labour, it is skilled work that Canadians couldn’t pick up just like that. Many of the TFW’s had been coming to the same farms and orchards for years or even decades -- they knew the work, the machinery, the routines. In some cases, they were described as “just like family.”

And so in late March, the federal government granted these workers an exception to the travel ban. At the time, they were warned by many TFW advocacy groups that there were long-standing problems with the working and living conditions in the industry, problems that would make the additional safety requirements of the pandemic difficult to sustain.  And so you would expect that given all this -- the importance of the industry, the precarious situation of the workers, the presence of a dangerous global pandemic -- that Canada would have taken extra special care with the TFW. You would have thought that the required funds and resources would have been allocated to ensure that all possible precautions were being taken to protect both the workers and Canadians. 

You would have thought wrong. 

There have been outbreaks in BC, Alberta, and Quebec, but the worst of it is in southwestern Ontario where there are over 600 recorded cases of the coronavirus. Three temporary foreign workers from Mexico have died, which caused the Mexican government to temporarily suspend the migration of workers to Canada.

Thanks to some very diligent investigative work by Globe and Mail reporters Tavia Grant and Kathryn Blaze Baum, we know just how bad the situation really is. In an explosive report published on June 16,  they detailed the “myriad reasons that COVID-19 has infiltrated farms with such success:” These include the lack of PPE for workers, shared kitchens, bathrooms, and bunkhouses where social distancing was impossible, sick workers being pressured to and threatened, and health and safety regulations being ignored and not enforced. 

It is worth repeating that none of this comes as a surprise -- federal officials were warned repeatedly about these problems. So what went wrong? It seems that it is a lot like so much of what has gone wrong with Canada’s pandemic response: Long-standing sectoral problems being exposed by structural flaws with how Canada works: overlapping jurisdictions and shared responsibilities leading to a crisis, followed by buck passing and “mistakes were made” excuse-making. 

As part of the requirements for allowing TFWs into the country, Ottawa insisted on a mandatory 14-day quarantine during which workers would be housed and paid at the employers’ expense. It was left to the employers to make sure that adequate housing, food, and health care was made available.  To help with the costs associated with this quarantine, the federal government offered every employer $1500 per worker. But whose job is it to actually make sure these requirements are being followed? And what happens after the quarantine is up?

It apparently depends on who you ask, and what minister is speaking, and what province you’re talking about. Agricultural minister Marie-Claude Bibeau put the onus on the employers to follow the guidelines (though In Quebec there would be followup by provincial officials). Ontario seems to have left it to the honour system, since “the Ministry of Labour does not inspect employer-provided accommodations.”

And while the federal government, as the ultimate overseer of the TFW programme,  has the power and the authority to conduct inspections of farm accommodations, Grant and Blaze Baum report that “during a six-week period at the height of the pandemic, these audits stopped. They are now being done virtually.” (Emphasis added).

On June 17, in responding to the Globe and Mail reports, prime minister Justin Trudeau was his usual helplessly reflective self: “ We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect: Can we change the system to do better?"

But it finally took a different federal official, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, to take something approximating responsibility for this fiasco. On June 18, the day after Trudeau’s call for national reflection, she conceded that the government’s handling of the TFW situation ““has floundered a bit. And we need to up our game.” She promised a new suite of measures, including in-person unannounced inspections of farms. 

Of course, not every province has trusted the employers to do the right thing, or waited for the feds to make sure of it. Just as it took responsibility for enforcing the federal quarantine at the border, British Columbia took control of the two-week quarantine for temporary foreign workers, putting them up in facilities paid for by the province. Since the program was put in place, there hasn’t been a single case of COVID-19 on a BC farm. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught Canadians a great deal about how their federation does -- and in too many cases, doesn’t -- function. The plot points of Canada’s pandemic narrative are a long series of balls dropped, cracks exposed, opportunities missed, warning ignored, and lessons unlearned, whether it is strategic preparedness, maintaining of PPE stockpiles, control of our borders, long term care of the elderly, or basic pubic health communications. 

To that list we can add the treatment of temporary foreign workers. The inevitable Royal Commission into Canada’s Pandemic Response is going to have a lot to chew on. (AP)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to If you liked this, why not share it?