Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: CanadianPM/Twitter/Screenshot

For many years, activists and NDP MPs have been pushing Canadian governments to institute more humane and just treatment for temporary foreign workers. 

We rely on these workers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, for many essential tasks — not the least of which is to harvest a good portion of the food we produce locally.

When the Pierre Trudeau government created the temporary foreign worker program, in the 1970s, it was to fill gaps in highly skilled professional fields such as medicine and engineering. It was not until 2002 that another Liberal government, that of Jean Chrétien, introduced a low-skilled (and low paid) temporary foreign worker program. 

These days, the majority of foreign guest workers in Canada are in the low-skilled category, and they have become an integral part of our labour market. 

When COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible to import farm workers just as the planting season was about to get underway, the agriculture sector set off alarm bells. 

In essence, the food industry said many farm operations would be ruined if they could no longer rely on the cheap labour of Mexicans, Jamaicans and others who come here for limited periods to do the most thankless and backbreaking jobs. 

Without these workers, industry spokespeople said, we could face massive food insecurity in Canada. 

The Justin Trudeau government heard those pleas and made an exception to pandemic restrictions for temporary food industry and farm workers. 

Canadians who were paying attention might have assumed that, as a quid pro quo, employers would have gone the extra distance to protect the health and safety of these workers during a time of worldwide pandemic.

It turns out that would have been a mistaken assumption. 

Mistreatment that has been taking place for years

In one region alone, southwestern Ontario, no fewer than 350 foreign workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died and two more are in intensive care. This news so alarmed the Mexican government that it suspended the foreign workers program from its end, just as thousands more Mexican workers were due to come to Canada.

Video and testimony have emerged showing unacceptably crowded and unsanitary living conditions, which would be inhumane at the best of times, but are lethally dangerous now.

Workers are also afraid to complain of ill health or seek medical treatment for fear of losing pay or losing their jobs altogether. They are in a very weak situation via-à-vis their employers, lacking most rights other workers in Canada enjoy.

When this story broke, one former official of the Canadian government posted a revealing mea culpa on Facebook, in part about her own role in implementing the foreign guest worker program, some years ago, as a junior government staffer. 

Here it is:

I feel complicit. When I was 25, I spent a year assessing applications for work permits from Jamaicans destined for farms in southern Ontario. I was shocked to discover that the farm workers were paid less than minimum wage, and that these wages were not released to them until they returned home at the end of the season. 

It was explained to me that farmers couldn’t find Canadians to do the work. Coming from a province that then had 35% unemployment for people under 30, I found that odd. It was explained to me that these were coveted jobs that paid for school fees and housing for whole villages of Jamaicans. I found that easy to believe. I did my job.

And now this has happened, all these years later.

I just don’t get how it wasn’t obvious that congregated living — on farms, in group homes, in seniors’ residences, in prisons — was inevitably going to have this result. It was obvious we needed to get children out of congregated settings, i.e. schools. It was obvious we needed to get public servants out of congregated settings, i.e. offices. 

After making their case for why these farm workers are essential to maintaining the food supply/ financial viability of the farms (I’m side stepping that debate for the moment) it’s not only inhumane but incredibly stupid to put this essential resource at risk and out of commission to do their essential work. What was the point of all that effort to get them here? 

My deepest apologies to all the men and a few women who leave their families behind to come to Canada for months each year to earn less than minimum wage to pick tomatoes for me to eat. 

Trudeau is first PM to even mention citizenship for migrant workers

One part of the solution to this long-standing abuse is to impose more rigorous standards on all employers of temporary foreign workers, and invest in effective enforcement.

Another, longer term solution, is to give these essential workers a fair and sure pathway to permanent residency in Canada, and ultimately citizenship.

The labour movement has urged governments to do this for decades, and just last week, in the light of the recent outbreak among migrant workers of COVID-19, NDP MP Jenny Kwan reiterated that proposal. 

Liberals and Conservative governments alike have adamantly resisted this idea, until now. Earlier this week, following what must have been a difficult conversation with the Mexican president, a chastened Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:

“We rely on temporary foreign workers for a large part of agricultural production in this country, but we should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect on how we can change the system to do better — better for Canadians, but also better by the people who come here and make sure we stay fed.”

Then, the PM added that “we know there are many issues, from living conditions to the fact that temporary foreign workers are tied individually to particular companies or employers, to various challenges around labour standards … We can even look at things like pathways towards citizenship, which would give people more rights” (italics added).

It was a short, almost offhand statement in the middle of a news conference that ranged far and wide, from police violence against Black and Indigenous people, to the extension of the CERB, to Canada’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

But the prime minister has opened the door to a path to citizenship, if only a crack, the way none of his predecessors ever did. 

Now, those who advocate for migrant workers will have to push hard on that door. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: CanadianPM/Twitter/Screenshot


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...