About 66 percent of migrant workers in Canada live with five to 20 other people, most of whom sleep on cots and share facilities with more than a dozen other workers, a new study shows.
The findings are part of the first known survey of the housing conditions of migrant workers, as Ottawa explores the creation of national minimum housing standards for a population exposed to the COVID-19 crisis. A federal consultation on the issue ran in the fall and the results are currently under review.
Compiled by the Migrant Rights Network (MRN) as part of submissions to the process, the survey lays bare the “obscene, inhumane and intolerable” standards that put worker safety at risk in the pandemic and its aftermath.
In Ontario alone, more than 2,400 agricultural workers have fallen ill with COVID-19, with workers, advocates and health experts pointing to the role of substandard housing in the viral spread.
“There is no time to lose. Disease has spread and lives and rights have been trampled on,” says the MRN submission. “Strong and enforceable guidelines must be implemented immediately.”
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Economic and Social Development Canada said “work is in progress to review and analyze the feedback received” through the housing consultation process, which ran from October to the end of December.
“This analysis of the submissions will inform the actions of the government in the coming months, and will be informed once finalised.”
The consulting backgrounder, obtained by Star, says the aim is “not to make short-term changes to the 2021 season or to address the current pandemic, but to develop a sustainable approach to improving living conditions for workers.”
Syed Hussain, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, which serves as MRN’s secretariat, said the group pushed for change this year to contain the outbreak. But, he said, he is increasingly concerned that reforms “will not even be ready at this rate for the next year.”
While the pandemic threw housing issues into drastic relief, the problem itself is far from new: As previously reported by Granthshala, a report commissioned by the federal government on migrant worker housing in 2018 led to a national The creation of the standard was urged, but the recommendation was never implemented. Employer groups dismissed the rigorous audit as an “excessive” administrative burden at the time.
A STAR investigation in 2019 uncovered thousands of complaints made to Mexican authorities by migrant workers over the past decade about working in Canada. Housing issues – including insect infestations, overcrowding and broken facilities – were the most common problems identified by workers.
The Migrant Rights Network (MRN) represents temporary foreign workers and rights groups across the country. Its presentation, which includes inputs from over 450 workers, is the first attempt to measure the reality of the current living conditions of migrant workers as well as their housing preferences.
Last year, three migrant workers in Ontario – Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muoz Santos and Juan López Chaparro – died after contracting COVID-19. Across Canada, at least six workers in quarantine have died this year, Hussein said, in some cases for unknown reasons.
For the workers surveyed, privacy and ample space were identified as key housing requirements. Nearly half of those surveyed said they shared a bedroom with four to eight people. The majority said they shared a bathroom and kitchen with six to 12 people, while 65 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the building structure of their bunkhouses.
Those sharing a bunkhouse with five to 10 workers made up the largest share of respondents, about 44 percent. More than one-fifth said they shared housing with 11 to 20 others.
The precarious immigration status means that temporary foreign workers do not have the right to advocate for better housing conditions, MRN’s submission notes.
“Current housing consultations are necessary only because migrant agricultural workers do not have the power to claim their rights under existing landlord-tenant protections in provinces and territories because of their immigration status.”
According to a draft consultation documents obtained by the Star, the minimum requirements under consideration by the federal government include a limit of four workers per bedroom and providing one toilet for every five workers.
But 62 percent of workers surveyed by MRN requested private bedrooms. Some 85 per cent said that the bathroom should be shared with a maximum of two people.
“This is important for maintaining mental and physical health as well as meeting objectives,” the submissions say.
The submissions add, “The proposed standards do not fundamentally treat migrant workers as human beings with social and individual needs, and therefore should be overhauled with this in mind.”
Equally important, Hussain said, is that the minimum standards implemented are enforceable – a significant shortcoming at present.
“Housing exists in this no-man’s-land of rights,” he said.
Employers who hire seasonal agricultural workers are required to provide “adequate” housing. But enforcement falls under a patchwork of jurisdictions. Acceptance to participate in the Federal Temporary Foreign Employee Program is subject to submission of an annual housing inspection report to the federal government. In Ontario, those inspections are carried out by local health units, which in turn operate under provincial laws.
According to a legal submission made last year to the Health Services Appeals and Review Board, some health officials could not complete these routine visits as the pandemic stretched resources to capacity.
As a result, the federal government has provided employers with “flexibility” when it comes to submitting required accommodation reports to hire workers during COVID. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 800 employers have been allowed to submit inspection reports that are up to three years old for approval, according to federal figures requested by the Star. An ESDC spokesperson said 86 percent of those employers have now submitted updated inspections to the government.
An ESDC spokesperson said that once workers arrive, housing “may be inspected as part of the terms of the federal TFW program” and employers may be fined or banned.
Of the nearly 60 penalties issued nationwide during the pandemic, none were issued for “substantial” housing violations, according to a public list of non-compliance employers.
“These vague terms have no enforcement or oversight mechanism. In practice, they are meaningless,” says another submission to a federal consultation process conducted by the Niagara Community Legal Clinic.
ESDC says it has taken a number of measures to enhance worker safety amid the pandemic, including a tip line for migrant workers that “includes live agents capable of offering services in multiple languages”. which forms a central point of contact with the provincial authorities. A pilot project to tackle the outbreak, and to conduct more thorough inspections of high-risk employers.
Since April, federal officials have completed 347 inspections of migrant worker employers in Canada.
Effective enforcement means “constantly assessing housing conditions before and during the season and enforcing standards with actual penalties for employers found in violation,” the MRN submission states.
“Anti-retaliation protection should also be implemented for workers who have been punished for expressing concern. Here again, the only real protection that can be provided to migrant agricultural workers is full and permanent immigration status. “
About 86 percent of workers surveyed said they believed they should have permanent residency upon arrival in Canada.
Without the status, workers do not have the right to protect themselves or take meaningful measures, Hussain said.
“We need to have full human dignity for this…