Feds seek feedback on farm worker living conditions

Consultations focused on 'primary agriculture' labour stream of TFWs

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Improving and standardizing living conditions for temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada — specifically, those on Canadian farms — is the subject of a new round of federal consultations.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau on Tuesday announced consultations are now underway until Dec. 22 with “provinces and territories, employers, workers, worker support groups and other interested parties” on a federal proposal on the matter.

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The proposal, the government said, is meant to “establish minimum requirements for employer-provided accommodations for the TFW program across Canada” — and the consultation now underway is directed at “proposed accommodation requirements in the TFW program’s primary agriculture stream.”

The government said Tuesday it also wants feedback on “potential approaches to strengthen oversight of worker accommodations, both prior to and after workers’ arrivals.”

In all, the consultations “will inform the development of a lasting approach to improve living conditions for workers,” the government said in a release. “Creating clear and consistent standards will also ensure employers fully understand their obligations and can better adhere to them.”

Ottawa also plans to “soon” launch a survey of TFW employers in the ag sector, “to inform the development of new proposed federal accommodations requirements and how they would be implemented.” That survey is expected to show the different types of arrangements used now to house and support farm TFWs.

The federal government said its plan “will complement existing standards at the provincial level, and will take further federal action in partnership to help improve protections for those who are part of the TFW program.”

‘Incidence and impact’

Ottawa had announced in late July it would set up consultations on the matter, in line with its plan “to take additional action to reduce the incidence and impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on farms.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union estimates about 1,300 TFWs in Canadian agriculture have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Three have died from the coronavirus during that time.

In response to the deaths of Mexican nationals in outbreaks on farms, the Mexican government in June briefly halted its Temporary Agricultural Workers Program (PTAT), which co-ordinates TFW traffic to Canada.

The federal government in July put up $58.6 million for TFW-related programs, of which $35 million was earmarked for improving health and safety on farms and in employee living quarters, and $16.2 million to “strengthen the employer inspections regime.”

Canada imports about 50,000-60,000 TFWs for the agriculture sector each year, accounting for over 60 per cent of the total TFW workforce, the government said. Of those, about 40 per cent go to Ontario, 32 per cent to Quebec and 18 per cent to British Columbia.

Employers seeking TFWs have to demonstrate in their Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) application that dwellings for workers have been inspected and comply with “local applicable standards.”

Housing standards and related inspections are a provincial responsibility, which in some cases is delegated to municipalities or private inspectors, the government said.

The proposed federal requirements would “complement” existing provincial standards, create “consistency” for all employers who provide accommodations to TFWs, and boost federal oversight for pre- and post-arrival inspections of those accommodations is also proposed.

The proposed accommodation requirements, Ottawa said, would focus on “a number of key factors” such as reducing potential for overcrowding, to ensure for personal space and “greater adaptability to public health measures” in case of an illness outbreak.

It would also look at “appropriate ratios of amenities” for housed workers, as well as appropriate heating/cooling and air quality and, where available, access to phone and internet service.

“Any unsafe working or living conditions are completely unacceptable,” Qualtrough said Tuesday in the government’s release. “While we are proud of the worker protections we have in this country, we recognize that there are important issues that need to be addressed within the Temporary Foreign Worker program.”

“As the vast majority of our farmers are known to care for the well-being of their workers, these measures will build on Canada’s reputation for prospective workers at home and abroad,” Bibeau said in the same release. –– Glacier FarmMedia Network

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Editor, Daily News

Dave Bedard

Editor, Daily News, Glacier FarmMedia Network. A Saskatchewan transplant in Winnipeg.

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