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Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has earned Canada a poor reputation for protecting the temporary foreign workers who come to plant strawberries, pick cherries and do the other hard farm work that Canadians are unwilling to do. She should disqualify companies that abuse foreign workers and win back Canada’s good name.
The damage to this country’s reputation became apparent on June 16 when the government of Mexico scratched Canada off the list of countries to which it sends temporary farm workers. Three Mexican workers had died after contracting COVID-19 in the crowded, vermin-infested bunkhouses provided for them in some southern Ontario vegetable farms. The Canadian government immediately promised to fix the problem and Mexico lifted its ban a week later.
There is no sign yet, however, that Ms. Qualtrough and her department have even begun to address the issue. If she fails, Mexico will once again stop sending workers to Canadian farms and Canada’s food supply will be impaired.
Temporary foreign workers are in a weak position to demand improved conditions from their employers. They win the right to be in Canada because they are employed by a company known to the government; the employer obtains a work permit on their behalf. If they complain and get fired, they no longer have a work permit and they can be deported. If the overseers tell them to work despite showing COVID-19 symptoms, they feel compelled to stay on the job, despite the risk to their co-workers.
In a normal competitive labour market, the worst employers would find their workers leaving to enjoy better conditions at another farm across the road. Temporary foreign workers, however, are more like indentured labour, tied through Canadian immigration law to the employer that secured their work permit. In these conditions, the worst employers encounter no competitive pressure to shape up.
In the absence of competitive pressure, Ms. Qualtrough’s department is supposed to inspect the farms and see that adequate standards are being respected. But inspection can consist of as little as phoning the employer to ask for a housing inspection report completed within the last three years.
Temporary foreign workers, however, are more like indentured labour, tied through Canadian immigration law to the employer that secured their work permit. In these conditions, the worst employers encounter no competitive pressure to shape up.
The department issued new standards this year to require housing that protects workers from coronavirus contagion. Virus testing during the epidemic identified more than 1,000 migrant farm workers in Ontario infected with the virus, but oddly not a single employer of farm labour has been penalized for breaches of the federal rules related to coronavirus protection.
An early step to reform would be to send inspectors to look at the conditions in which migrant farm workers are living and working on Canadian farms. Another step would be to identify farm companies that chronically abuse their foreign workers. The government should scratch them off the list of employers allowed to import temporary labour.
Ultimately, the best solution will be to allow competitive pressure to do its work. Once workers are free to quit working for bad employers and go where they receive better treatment, working conditions and living conditions will immediately improve.
The Mexican government applied competitive pressure of a kind in briefly cutting off the supply of farm labour to Canada. But that solution is hard for all the affected Canadian farms and for thousands of Mexican workers, making no distinction between the bad employers and the good. Ms. Qualtrough should give Mexico no reason for taking such a step again.
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