Ottawa wants to improve living conditions for temporary foreign workers

By Levon Sevunts

The federal government is launching wide-ranging consultations with provinces and territories, various industries and worker support groups aimed at improving working and living conditions for tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers in Canada who’ve been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the second wave of the pandemic washes over the country, Ottawa is looking for proposals to establish minimum standards for employer-provided accommodations for nearly 50,000 agricultural workers who come to Canada every year as part of the Temporary Foreign Workers program.

The goal is to reduce the incidence and impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on farms by creating “clear and consistent standards” that will also ensure employers fully understand their obligations and can better adhere to them, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a joint statement.

In a report released on Wednesday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the pandemic has disproportionately affected seniors, essential workers, racialized populations, people living with disabilities and women.

In response to the report, the federal government acknowledged that “this pandemic has brought to light some unacceptable gaps in the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, and we are committed to fixing them.”

“Any unsafe working or living conditions are completely unacceptable,” Qualtrough said in a statement.

“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, and we are taking action.”

As a first step, the federal government is seeking input until Dec. 22, 2020 on proposed accommodation requirements for temporary foreign workers employed on farms across Canada.

Ottawa is also looking for suggestions on strengthening oversight of worker accommodations, both prior to and after workers’ arrivals.

“Agricultural workers are essential for the production of safe and reliable food in our country, and we know that they all deserve a safe working and living environment,” Bibeau said in a statement.

According to statistics released by the federal government, in 2019 Canadian officials approved over 46,000 positions for foreign temporary workers coming to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Nearly 13,000 of these workers were from the Caribbean and the rest came from Mexico.

Most foreign workers who work on farms are located in Ontario (40 per cent), Quebec (32 per cent) and British Columbia (18 per cent).