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‘System of oppression’ puts temporary foreign workers at risk of COVID-19: advocate

Last Updated Apr 23, 2020 at 7:48 am PDT

(CREDIT: iStock user ImagineGolf)
Summary

An advocate is shining a light on conditions temporary foreign workers are living under amid the pandemic

Issues Canadians turn a blind eye to every day are putting more lives at risk because of the pandemic, advocate says

Migrant workers have in many cases been deemed essential

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Crowded living, shared bathrooms, and unsafe workplaces; advocates say migrant workers are stuck in dangerous situations despite promises from the province to protect them from COVID-19.

Volunteers at non-profit society Fuerza Migrante work day and night to ensure temporary foreign workers understand their rights, including the right to a safe workplace.

Alejandro Lazzari with the society says the group works with around 500 workers across Canada. He says issues Canadians turn a blind eye to every day are putting more lives at risk because of the pandemic.

“The reason why migrant workers are being disproportionately affected by this crisis is because of a larger system of oppression exacerbating the impacts of COVID,” he says.

“Living conditions are usually extremely poor,” explains Lazzari. In smaller bunkhouses, four to eight people usually sleep in a room, but Lazzari says he’s seen that explode into dozens of people at times.

“There can be like, 20, 25, 30 people within a floor; they’re sharing two or three stoves, sharing two bathrooms, all usually at the same time because they work the same hours and they have to prep their food and do their care work at the same time,” he explains.

While the majority of Canadians shelter under stay-at-home measures, migrant workers have in many cases been deemed essential and are working to provide Canadians with produce and meat, or to build our condos and roads, among countless other jobs.

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‘Essential to Canadian society’

In March, the federal government excluded TFW’s from border closures and travel restrictions, recognizing them as essential after employers pushed back to allow workers in.

“When employers are saying that [workers are] ‘essential’ that means they’re essential not to the wellbeing of Canadian society but to their profits,” Lazzari says.

However, he adds living and labour conditions set out decades ago are not up to standards needed to keep COVID-19 at bay in the vulnerable population.

He says those working on packing lines or in fields with machinery, for example, are forced to work in small groups and distancing is nearly impossible.

In March, 23 TFWs at a West Kelowna nursery tested positive for COVID-19; more than 70 were isolated as a result.

This week, a worker died after an outbreak at Alberta’s largest meat-processing facility south of Calgary. Nearly 500 people are sick after being linked to that cluster which has spread through spouses of meat packers to long term care centres.

Employees, many of whom are from abroad, have accused Cargill of ignoring social distancing.

The world is watching as Singapore, recently hailed as a COVID-19 success story, deals with more than 11,000 positive cases as a second wave of the disease hit that country’s migrant workforce and more than 98 per cent of 1,400-plus new cases were attributed to migrant workers in Singapore.

“I think it’s clear now that migrant workers are a key fabric of our society and I think that fabric is being threatened right now,” says Lazzari.

He says government regulators have not reliably penalized employers for failing to protect workers when his organization has reported violations, blaming systemic bias and prejudice as the reasons migrant workers remain unprotected.

“Our experience with these investigations have been poor. They do show up … but perhaps they don’t understand the structural dynamics that are in place that may prevent some workers from speaking out, especially in front of their employer or a government official” he adds.

“So as much as we can, we try to build power with workers so they can themselves, directly, enforce what they want,” citing an example where migrant workers essentially went on strike because they had not been paid.