Open letter from B.C.'s seasonal farmworkers to provincial and federal politicians

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      April 6, 2020 Dignidad Migrante Society
      880 Malkin Ave
      Vancouver, BC V6A 2K6

      Hon. Justin Trudeau
      Prime Minister of Canada
      80 Wellington Street
      Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2

      Hon. John Horgan
      Premier and President of the Executive Council
      West Annex Parliament Buildings
      Victoria, BC V8V 1X4

      Re: Support for migrant workers impacted by COVID-19

      Forty years ago today, on April 6, 1980, the Canadian Farmworkers Union was founded. Our organization continues that historic struggle for the same ideals.

      We are the Board of Directors of Dignidad Migrante Society (“Dignidad”), a worker-based non-profit organization which provides services, support, representation and assistance to migrant workers in British Columbia, especially those working in the agricultural sector. For over a decade we have been helping migrant workers stand up for their rights, without funding from any agency or government. We are entirely volunteer-run, and our Board is composed exclusively of migrant workers.

      Our work includes helping to ensure that injured workers have access to medical attention, assisting with WorkSafe, Employment Standard and Human Rights claims, helping workers to file taxes, and helping workers access benefits such as employment insurance, and the Canadian Pension Plan. We support and advocate for workers who have been exploited in the course of their employment. We also promote the self-organization of migrant workers through educational workshops and community events.

      Temporary foreign workers have been coming to work in Canada in large numbers since 1966. Each year, thousands of seasonal workers from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines and the Caribbean are legally employed in Canada’s agricultural sector. These seasonal workers spend anywhere from three to eleven months annually working on farms and in greenhouses. Many return to Canada year after year. While these workers may be considered “temporary”, they fulfill a permanent need: they have been a key part of the agricultural industry for decades, and without them many farms and related businesses could not exist.

      The essential role of these workers to the Canadian economy has never been more apparent than during the current COVID-19 pandemic. While Canada’s businesses, schools, and offices are shuttered, and the country has closed its borders to tourists and non-essential travellers, seasonal agricultural workers employed on Canadian farms have been specially permitted to enter the country. They continue to work to ensure that production continues, supply chains remain intact and Canadians have food on their tables during this global crisis.

      In spite of the incredible importance of migrant workers to Canadian society, their labour is rarely recognized and their rights and skills are all too frequently ignored. Like all of us, migrant workers have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals, however, are particularly vulnerable both to illness and exploitation, and yet they have extremely limited access to the rights and benefits to which their Canadian counterparts are entitled.

      Housing, access to health care and sick leave

       Seasonal agricultural workers generally earn minimum wage and are not entitled to overtime pay or holidays. They live in employer-provided housing on the farms where they work, typically in remote, rural areas. Although legally required to self-isolate upon arrival in Canada, this housing is often overcrowded, substandard and dormitory-style, making self-isolation difficult. Risk of illness spreading is heightened, and yet these workers do not always have access to timely medical care, provincial medical coverage, or health-related information in their own language. Moreover, the vast majority of migrant workers do not have access to paid sick leave. This is extremely dangerous in light of the current public health crisis: all workers should be financially able to stay home when they are ill.

      We call on the government of British Columbia to mandate that employers provide two weeks’ paid sick leave to all workers, including temporary foreign workers, and permanently remove the three-month waiting period for Medical Services Plan enrolment.

      We call on the federal government to impose adequate housing standards for seasonal agricultural workers, eliminate overcrowding, guarantee privacy and ensure that employer-provided housing is regularly inspected and housing standards enforced.

      Complete access to employment insurance benefits

       Although many seasonal agricultural workers are already hard at work in Canada, others are facing delays or even termination of their employment as a result of COVID-19. For most of these individuals, working in Canada provides their only source of income and they rely on it to support their families throughout the year.

      Since the beginning of the seasonal agricultural worker program more than fifty years ago, seasonal agricultural workers have been required to pay into employment insurance benefits. However, they are unable to access these benefits in the same way as Canadians. In particular, these workers are only allowed to collect parental, compassionate or caregiver leave benefits during the time that their Social Insurance-Work Permit is valid, as opposed to the full period to which Canadians and permanent residents are entitled.

      Workers not currently in Canada do not qualify for regular or sick leave benefits, and because seasonal agricultural workers spend most of the year in Canada, they generally do not qualify for the benefits which may be available in their home countries. Although seasonal agricultural workers make important contributions to the Canadian economy and to the economies of their home countries, these marginalized workers are falling through the cracks both in Canada and at home.

      We therefore call on the federal government to provide temporary foreign workers, including those whose scheduled employment has been delayed or terminated as a result of COVID-19, with immediate access to the complete employment insurance benefits package to which Canadians and permanent residents are entitled.

      Dignidad Migrante Society recognizes that we are living through challenging and rapidly changing times, and that no one has been untouched by this pandemic. Nevertheless, we hope that our message reaches you and that you will immediately begin to take action to address the particular plight of migrant workers impacted by COVID-19. These workers are putting food on our tables before, during and after this crisis; their labour must not remain invisible.

      We thank you for your immediate attention to this matter.

      Dignidad Migrante Society board of directors
      Mauro Nava Casarrubias, Victor Serrano, Hector Balderas-Campus, Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Nigenda, Carlos Canett-Gonzalez, Guadalupe Herrera, Nereida Guevara, Mirsa Martinez, and Patricia Aquino


      Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau. Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food
      Hon. Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health
      Hon. Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
      Hon. Filomena Tassi, Minister of Labour
      Hon. Harry Bains, B.C. Minister of Labour
      Hon. Adrian Dix, B.C. Minister of Health
      Hon. Michelle Mungall, B.C. Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and
      Hon. Shane Simpson, B.C. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
      Hon. Lana Popham, B.C. Minister of Agriculture
      Mr. Adam Olsen, Member of the Legislative Assembly for Saanich North and the Islands
      and Leader of the Third Party
      Mr. Raj Chouhan, MLA Deputy Speaker, B.C. Legislative Assembly