EThis year, a few months before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, Erika Zavala, 35, and Jesus Molina, 36, arrived in Canada. With few opportunities in Mexico, the couple had found employment under a federal program for seasonal agricultural workers and planned to send money to their families.
After working on other farms, they were transferred to Bylands, a nursery in the small town of Kelowna, British Columbia, which had experienced a Covid-19 outbreak that ended on May 11.
When they started work on May 27, managers told them the farm had a strict policy to prevent the spread of the virus: migrant workers could not leave the farm or have visitors. The rule did not apply to Canadian workers.
Government directives order workers to isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Canada, but at that time the couple – who did not have the virus – had been in the country for months. The local health authority had issued an order restricting the movement of workers from Bylands, but it was lifted when the couple arrived.
On June 28, Molina and Zavala invited two migrant rights activists to their employer-provided house, but another worker took a photo and sent it to their boss. The manager called them into his office, showed them the photo, and fired them.
He asked them to sign a letter stating that they had broken the rules by leaving the property and interacting with people who did not work there. “As a result, you are immediately sent home,” says the letter in Spanish. They asked for a second chance, but his decision was final.
Zavala said she thought she had no choice but to sign. The manager would not touch the pen she was using, as if she was ill, she said. The experience left her with a sense of fear, sadness and humiliation – “like I was worth nothing”. The manager did not respond to requests for comment.
A few days later, the couple were back in Mexico.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had handled the pandemic better than other countries – but admitted that was not the case when it came to migrant farm workers.
As in the United States and other countries, Covid-19 has spread rapidly on farms that employ migrant workers, aided by inhumane living conditions, lack of legal rights and shoddy federal oversight – all predating the virus.
In Canada, the epicenter is Ontario, where more than 1,000 migrant farm workers have tested positive and three have died. To prevent the spread, some employers have put in place strict rules and surveillance to control workers. Under federal programs for migrant workers, their visas are attached to employers, so they can easily be sent home.
“Obviously we need to do a better job of making sure the rules are followed for our temporary foreign workers in Canada,” Trudeau said in June after the deaths of three workers who contracted Covid-19. “Every person who works in Canada deserves to do so in a safe environment and, unfortunately, that hasn’t always happened.”
But so far, the federal approach has been largely reactive. The Trudeau government has given employers $ 50 million to cover the costs of hotel rooms and food during the mandatory 14-day quarantine on the arrival of migrant workers. Supporters say this money equates to financial assistance for employers and does not directly benefit workers.
The federal government is expected to announce new policies for migrant workers in the coming days.
Activist groups are calling on the government to grant workers permanent residence upon arrival in Canada so they can leave abusive employers and find other employment. (Currently, if a migrant worker suffers from abuse at work, it is difficult to find work elsewhere without risking repatriation.)
Labor attorney Susanna Quail said the farm that fired Zavala and Molina really believed they were allowed to lock up migrant workers to prevent an outbreak. “Whatever they believed, what they did was illegal,” she said.
Employers do not have the right to restrict the movement of employees, and firing employees for breaking a rule based on their place of origin violates the provincial human rights code, she said.
“This is one of the problematic aspects of the temporary foreign worker program: employers have a lot of control over who stays and who leaves and who gets rehired next year,” she said. There are ways for workers to fight layoffs or apply for an open permit to work on another farm, but it’s hard to do if they have already been sent home.
Bylands manager Devon Hunt confirmed that the farm fired the couple for violating the farm’s health and safety policies. Hunt said Bylands was concerned about the safety of employees and did not want to risk another Covid-19 outbreak, so the farm developed its own policies in conjunction with the local health authority and the Mexican consulate.
“We regret that this has happened and we remain committed to ensuring that our team and our community remain safe and healthy. To do this, we expect all of our employees to follow the protocols we have in place, ”he said in an email.
But the problem is much bigger than a single farm.
For over 50 years, Canada has allowed farms to hire workers from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica. Approximately 60,000 workers come to Canada each year, their numbers increasing in response to domestic labor shortages and growing exports. In turn, billions of dollars of agricultural products are exported to the United States each year.
« [The federal program] is a racist immigration-based legal regime that creates a differential set of norms, laws and practices for migrant workers from the Global South as opposed to Canadians, ”said Chris Ramsaroop, organizer of Justicia for Migrant Workers. “It’s a racial structure, it’s a system rooted in a contract work system.
Ramsaroop said it was important for consumers to ask where their food comes from, who harvests and conditions it – and what the conditions are for these workers. “We can’t think of it as something that exists; we have to think of it as something that affects us every day in our daily life. “
Back in Mexico, Zavala said workers who are simply looking to provide for their families deserve “dignified, fair and equal treatment.”
She said, “Many employers believe that by giving us work, we belong to them and they can do with us what they want.”