Migrant workers in Virginia. Image: Bread for the World​/Flickr

A new partnership between researchers based at Dalhousie University, St. Thomas University and Cooper Institute is seeking to interview temporary foreign workers (TFWs) about their experiences working in the agricultural and seafood sectors in the Maritime provinces during the COVID pandemic.

Raluca Bejan, an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University who has researched migration in Greece and other European countries, has turned her attention to the situation of TFWs in the Maritimes.

Bejan recently wrote of TFWs in Canada during the COVID pandemic: “What happens if a worker falls sick? What type of care will be offered? And what happens in cases of workplace abuse? What protections do workers have?”

Temporary foreign workers in Canada are a category of migrant workers who hold a work permit for a predetermined amount of time. The program has been in place in Canada since 1973 when the country moved to assist businesses with their temporary labour shortages. Some TFWs have been coming back and forth to Canada for more than two decades.

Workers from Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have increasingly become the face of the seasonal agricultural and seafood processing workforce in rural New Brunswick.

Canada’s TFW program has long been scrutinized as super-exploitative. The COVID pandemic has further exposed the challenges facing TFWs.

TFWs in Canada work for low wages and have been injured and killed on the job. Workers have stayed with abusive employers for fear of deportation, and the workers are not provided with an easy path to permanent residency and all the benefits associated with Canadian citizenship.

Bejan wrote:

“Migrant workers employed in the seafood/agri-food sectors are in a doubly precarious position, in terms of both their work and their immigration status. TFWs are more likely than Canadian citizens and permanent residents to be subject to unsafe occupational practices and to live in substandard and overcrowded conditions. During a pandemic, these conditions might deteriorate further, triggering greater health and safety risks.”

In April, the New Brunswick government briefly banned temporary foreign workers from entering the province. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs called on students to fill the jobs. After intense lobbying from farm owners, the ban was reversed on May 22.

“While public attention has been focused on impacts of the TFW program on food productivity and continuity during the pandemic, there has been little concern about the working and living conditions of the workers themselves,” says Kristi Allain, co-investigator of the research project and the Canada research chair in physical culture and social life at St. Thomas University.

In Alberta, more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 are linked to the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, making it the site of the single-largest outbreak in North America.

With food processing plants being one of the most common places of infection across Canada and the U.S., the research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), aims to document the social impact of COVID-19 on the occupational conditions of TFWs in the Maritimes.

“The project will pay attention to how access to services and protections for migrants vary across the Maritimes. Further, it aims to increase local capacity for advocacy by generating strategic solidarity between migrant justice organizations in the region,” says Allain.

KAIROS, the Filipino-Canadian CommUNITY of New Brunswick, the Tatamagouche Centre and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) are actively involved in the research and see it as strengthening their alliance and advocacy work for TFWs in the Maritimes.

Interviews with TFWs who have worked in the Maritimes during the COVID pandemic are underway. If you are interested in being interviewed for this research or have questions about this research, contact Tracy Glynn at [email protected] or toll-free at 1-833-636-1389. For more information about the research project, visit: https://tfwmaritimes.ca/.

Tracy Glynn is coordinating the research in New Brunswick.This article was first published on the NB Media Co-Op.

Image: Bread for the World​/Flickr