Housing conditions for migrant workers in Canada 'worse than if we were in prison,' new report says

·5 min read
A new report on the living conditions of seasonal workers was released Thursday by the Migrant Rights Network.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
A new report on the living conditions of seasonal workers was released Thursday by the Migrant Rights Network. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

From insufficient access to toilets to cramped living conditions, a new report that includes testimonies from migrant farm workers in Canada paints a bleak picture of their housing conditions.

"We are living in conditions of modern-day slavery," said one migrant worker, in one of the anonymous testimonies included in the report released by the Migrant Rights Network and Food & Farmworkers Working Group on Thursday.

"We have no indoor bathroom. We have to use a portable toilet outside or pee in a bottle. No internet or television. No dryer or washing machine.... It feels worse than if we were in prison."

The report, based on feedback from 453 workers and a survey specific to 330 of them, was assembled in response to the federal government's proposed Mandatory Employer-Provided Accommodations.

The government began consultations last year with stakeholders to establish the bar for employer-provided accommodations for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

In addition to the testimonies, the report includes surveys and photographs, demands for change for workers, and calls for "dignified" housing for all. It didn't name either the companies that hired the workers or where in the country they were located.

The impetus for the report stems from concerns over the treatment of temporary foreign workers during the pandemic. Thousands of them contracted COVID-19 in 2020, with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit repeatedly pointing to congregate living as a big factor in its spread.

Cramped conditions, no limited privacy

One testimony in the report describes up to 60 people sharing one living space, with a bathroom and kitchen.

However, the report says, about 44 per cent of the time, five to 10 people shared one house.

Photos in the document show bunk beds separated by curtains, dirty kitchens and toilets. One photo shows a ceiling that's falling apart. The report does not identify where exactly these photos were taken, though a representative with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, one of the groups involved with the report, says most were taken in Ontario and British Columbia. CBC has not independently verified the images.

Lack of privacy is one of the concerns highlighted in the report.

"We're very close together, and the bunk beds are in a poor state and we can't rest well," one migrant worker described in another anonymous testimony.

The same worker described not being able to leave the farm freely or to have visitors, with some wishing their families could join them as well. Some workers come to Canada for eight months a year, while others might stay for two or more years at a time, according to the report.

Wanting 'respect and dignity'

The report also says nearly half of all respondents pointed to space as a key priority. Many would like space to have time alone, more space to store their personal belongings and separate change rooms.

Another testimony noted, "We're not asking for luxuries in the house, but merely a decent space where we can have an eight-month work stay with respect and dignity."

File Photo
File Photo

A third of the respondents called for better quality of life, calling for clean drinking water, air conditioning and hot water for showers.

"We shouldn't be crammed in tight spaces and force to work in dangerous conditions, and to be victimized for standing up for our rights," one worker said in an anonymous testimony.

My members are scrutinized and audited in many, many ways from many different people and places. ... I'm pretty assured in saying that those issues did not happen with my membership."

- Joe Sbrocchi, GM of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers

"We as farm workers should feel home while we are here and not like we are in prison."

The report also cited concerns around employer control of workers, mentioning surveillance and control over their movement.

Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG), which represent over 220 greenhouse farmers, has concerns about the report.

"I don't know if anything is substantiated," he said.

"On our behalf, I will tell you that my members are scrutinized and audited in many, many ways from many different people and places," he said, citing audits from the health unit, the fire department, building department, Employment and Social Services Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

"I can only speak for my members and I'm pretty assured in saying that those issues did not happen with my membership."

CBC
CBC

Kit Andres, an organizer for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the issue isn't individual bad farms, but a "bad system."

Workers know, according to Andres, that the solution to problems like overcrowding is to have a national housing standard.

"So that they know no matter what farm they are sent to throughout the country, they know that they will be arriving to safe and dignified housing that reflects their humanity. And these standards also need to be enforceable," Andres said.

In addition to the Migrant Rights Network calling for national standards for dignified housing, it continues to call for full and permanent immigration status for all migrant workers.

"This is the only solution," according to Andres.

"Right now, workers are not able to — due to their temporary status — they're not able to speak up when there are issues at work or at home in their employer-controlled housing. When they do speak up, they face job termination, homelessness and deportation, and being blacklisted from the program indefinitely."

CBC has reached out to the federal government for comment, but has not yet heard back.

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