Manitoba could take lead from B.C. on migrant worker rights, advocates say, but federal action needed

By | June 12, 2020

Advocates for the rights of migrant workers are calling on provinces to put pressure on Ottawa to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And they say there are already models Manitoba could look to in Canada to keep workers safer.

“It’s a question of power,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Toronto-based Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Workers know “if one of them falls sick, that it will go through their entire community like a wildfire,” Hussan said, but they feel unable to speak out to protect themselves.

“Doing so can mean termination.”

Two temporary foreign workers, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, 24, and Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, 31, have died from COVID-19 in Canada. Hundreds of others have been sickened in outbreaks across the country.

In Manitoba, four temporary foreign workers at one workplace have tested positive for COVID-19, according to public health officials.

Hussan’s organization, which represents migrant workers in Canada, published a report earlier this week documenting fears and complaints from workers across the country during the pandemic, including a lack of access to protective equipment, crowded conditions and gouging on wages and meal costs.

In one case, a Manitoba worker contacted the alliance to report an employer who failed to provide food for workers during the mandated 14-day isolation period following arrival in Canada, Hussan said.

Syed Hussan, seen here in a 2019 file photo, is the executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. A Manitoba worker recently contacted the alliance to report an employer who failed to provide food for workers during the mandated 14-day isolation period following arrival in Canada, Hussan said. (CBC)

The employer also docked workers’ pay, despite federal requirements regarding payment during isolation, Hussan said.

The federal government requires all temporary foreign workers to self-isolate for 14 days following their arrival in Canada. Employers are required to provide lodgings and pay employees for up to 30 hours of work per week. 

But in B.C., Hussan said, the provincial government has taken responsibility for housing workers during the self-isolation period.

“[The B.C. government] took on the responsibility of picking up workers from the airport, driving them, housing them into hotels, managing their food.”

Hussan said there are elements of B.C.’s approach Manitoba could learn from.

Lessons from B.C., long-term care home response

In the long-term, Hussan said the most important move from government to protect worker rights is to provide permanent resident status to workers, so they can raise concerns or refuse unsafe work without fearing further exploitation or deportation.

Manitoba’s government could help keep workers safer by following the lead of other governments in dealing with outbreaks in long-term care homes.

Ontario, for example, launched an independent, non-partisan commission after thousands of COVID-19-related deaths linked to outbreaks in the homes.

The province could also look to B.C., Hussan said, for a model on housing and inspections that could protect workers after arriving in the country.

Juliana Dalley, a staff lawyer for the Migrant Workers Centre in B.C., said that province’s move to take over housing for temporary foreign farm workers was an “important step.”

“BC. really did step up in that regard,” Dalley said.

During the 14-day self-isolation period, the B.C. government pays for workers’ food and a hotel stay near the Vancouver International Airport — not the premises where they plan to work — according to the province’s website.

Once their isolation is over, workplaces aren’t permitted to have employees move in until they pass a provincial site inspection.

In Manitoba, workers are required to self-isolate, but may do so in housing provided by employers. The province also conducts inspections, but it uses a “targeted approach,” a spokesperson said in an email, which doesn’t require every workplace to be inspected.

Inspectors for Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health don’t have the authority to enforce rules put in place by the federal government, which runs temporary foreign worker programs, the provincial spokesperson wrote in an email. Provincial inspectors can only enforce Manitoba laws and current public health orders.

“WSH and Employment Standards work collaboratively to share information related to vulnerable workers, including [temporary foreign workers],” the spokesperson said.

Workplace Safety and Health conducts inspections “as necessary, to ensure workers’ safety and health is protected and they are appropriately trained.”

However, Hussan said federal inspections are being done virtually during the pandemic, and he worries those won’t catch anything employers don’t want inspectors to see.

Dalley said Manitoba could implement a temporary housing model like B.C.’s, which “would be better than taking no action,” but she says it shouldn’t be the province’s responsibility.

“I think it’s important to recognize that … the federal government does have a responsibility to ensure safe working conditions for temporary foreign workers who are arriving in Canada.”

‘Holding this country together’

Hussan sees a role for provinces, including Manitoba, to place pressure on the federal government to take action on concerns migrant workers and advocates have been raising about living and working conditions for decades.

Many of those concerns aren’t specific to the pandemic, which is one of the reasons he’s continuing the call for permanent resident status long-term.

“The vast majority of … essential work in this country is being done by low-wage, racialized, often migrant, undocumented people. That’s who’s actually holding this country together,” he said.

They aren’t calling for special treatment, he said, “but they’re calling for power.”

“They’re saying, ‘we are ready to save our lives. We’re ready to protect ourselves. What we need is the federal and provincial government to get out of our way and let us do that.'”

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