Pandemic Borders

Can the COVID-19 crisis be an opportunity for Canada’s migrant farmworkers?

The truly ‘essential’ temporary migrant workers are the ones who usually find it nearly impossible to access permanent residency and citizenship.

Anna Triandafyllidou Lucia Nalbandian
5 August 2020
Farm workers harvesting a cranberry field in Canada
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Picture by Adrian Brown/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a paradoxical effect on Canadian immigration policy: while it has brought the entry of high-skilled workers to a halt, it has allowed low-skilled workers, including those often arriving through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, to continue coming. The federal government has made special arrangements to ensure low-skilled workers can come and work in Canadian farms while those highly skilled outside the country are asked to wait – the border remains closed at the time of writing (17 July 2020).

One would have thought that it is those high-skilled workers that are ‘essential’ to the Canadian knowledge-based economy, however, we have found that those truly ‘essential’ are the low-skilled temporary migrant workers: those that actually find it nearly impossible to access permanent residency and later citizenship. What can the pandemic experience tell us about immigration policy and how can immigration be governed more effectively for both categories of migrant workers during this extraordinary time?

The impact of the pandemic border closures on temporary foreign workers engaged in Canada’s farms and fish plants has received wide media coverage. Concerns have mounted about the consequences of not admitting theroughly 60,000 annual seasonal agricultural workers, whose invaluable labour contributes to the food supply that feeds Canadians. While the Government has encouraged the growing number of unemployed Canadians to apply to work in the agriculture and agri-food sector, these jobs are often avoided by citizens at home.

On 21 March 2020, the Canadian Government announced that seasonal agricultural workers, fish and seafood workers, caregivers and all other temporary foreign workers providing essential services would be exempt from restrictions placed on individuals travelling to Canada. Nevertheless, these exempt temporary foreign workers must undergo health screening before they arrive in Canada and must then isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

The question that arises is whether the pandemic lesson can help shape more sustainable immigration policy for such essential work

Chris Selley writes, in response to calls from both politicians and farmers, “the federal government's COVID-19 ATM spat out 50 million-dollar bills to help Canadian farmers deal with [the] rather pressing labour issue,” to ensure that Temporary Foreign Workers are living in social distance (read: not in the otherwise cramped settings they are accustomed to), and being paid. The government’s willingness to accept low-skill labourers, and even go the extra mile for finding appropriate solutions: chartered flights with few passengers sitting at safe ‘distance’, assistance with their accommodation and self-isolation, do not reveal some new sensitivity about the living or working conditions of these temporary foreign workers. Rather, they have been a knee-jerk, effective reaction to the fear of the agriculture and food processing industry chain breaking down, leaving supermarkets in short supply and harvests wasted. The question that arises is whether the pandemic lesson can help shape more sustainable immigration policy for such essential work.

Indeed, a structural change has also come along: on 15 May 2020 the Canadian government announced an Agri-food Immigration Pilot where migrant workers in agriculture would be allowed to apply for permanent residency. Unfortunately, the program, criticized for being inaccessible, foresees only 2,750 applicants and family members and expires on 14 May 2023.

The pandemic brings into focus the wider dynamics of the agri-food sector in North America and in Europe, where similar migration and farm work dynamics are registered. Agriculture is a sector characterized by difficult working conditions, low prestige and low pay. It is a sector where work is mainly seasonal and requires a supply-and-demand mechanism that is ultra-flexible. People need to be available on call, can be easily dismissed, work under adverse conditions, and have little possibility of upwards mobility. The connection with commercial networks, agro-entrepreneurs, intermediaries and the final consumers pushes for lowering the prices of vegetables and fruits and with difficult traceability of products. The dynamics of employment in agriculture are thus shaped by a number of factors that include but are not confined to migrant labour.

Today’s agriculture is characterized by intensive pressures to keep production costs low to be competitive. Large corporations in the retail and agri-food sectors push for low prices to maximize their own benefits and, given the large volume of products that they can absorb, they can impose their conditions on producers. Producers are faced with some costs that are irreducible, such as the increasing need to mechanize the sector, the cost of water and energy for production, and the cost of fertilizers, seeds and feed. Thus, squeezing the cost of labour through employing migrants with precarious status appears almost a necessary choice, particularly to smaller producers.

Insights from Northern European countries such as Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Nordic countries can be telling for Canada too. In these countries the demand for labour in agriculture has been largely met seamlessly through intra-European migration from the Central and Eastern European Member States. While this migration was linked to seasonal contractual employment, research has shown that employment was formally legal but actually exploitative and irregular, often involving substandard conditions in terms of working hours, low wages and safety conditions. Problems included that workers were often unaware of their rights and accepted payslips not in line with their actual pay, the quantity of mushrooms picked and the overall conditions of work.

In Southern Europe, in Italy in particular, a crucial factor favouring the substandard conditions of work and exploitation that migrant workers in agriculture suffer (often regardless of whether they are EU citizens, have legal status as asylum seekers or are undocumented) is the caporalato, the traditional Italian gang master system. The term caporalato covers a variety of mechanisms, including low-level team leaders who select workers and recommend them to employers, organise shifts and check the quantities picked by each worker in the case of piece payment. The caporali plan and agree on the costs and timing of the harvest, keeping a share of the profits for themselves for this logistical work of intermediation or coordination. Serious exploitation is often reported, alongside violence, threats and blackmail.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken low-skilled temporary foreign workers “from disposable to indispensable.”

The question that arises thus for both Europe and North America is the ways in which agricultural policy and migration policy need to work hand in hand with a view to promoting better working and living conditions for migrant farmworkers, and with a clear perspective for long term citizenship status for those who wish to remain at their working destination.

Such a policy would entail some special provisions for the living conditions of these workers and their access to health and other support services in a proactive manner rather than based on a complaints process triggered by the worker.

What can actually be done?

There should be more intensive inspections, verification of contracts, working conditions, accommodation and actual pay: Whistle-blowing is not sufficient, as migrant workers, are often unaware of their rights and if they are aware, they are not sure to whom to turn to. Continuous monitoring and ad hoc inspections need to be enforced.

The provisions now (as of 2014) allowed for caregivers in terms of changing employers should also be used in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in agriculture.

Intensified controls of large retailers and the agri-food businesses, where a corporate responsibility policy is important: Supermarket chains should be pushed to use ethical supply sources and to check subcontractors and producers

While the Agri-food Migrant Pilot is a very welcome initiative, it is tiny compared to the number of temporary migrant workers that come to Canada every year under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program in agriculture could benefit from conditions similar to those available for caregivers in regards to the transition to permanent residency and family reunification. Notably, after a certain amount of time, for instance, four seasons in four consecutive years, workers should have preferential access to permanent residency as it happens for caregivers after 24 months of employment in their respective sector.

As Connor Sorio argues, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken low-skilled temporary foreign workers “from disposable to indispensable.” As Canadians express an interest in moving forward, and not returning to the way things used to be, the Government of Canada should greatly consider the role that low-skill temporary foreign workers have and continue to play in ensuring Canadians are fed and taken care of and afford these individuals the same privileges as those deemed highly-skilled.

A version of this article was originally published on First Policy Response on 11 June 2020

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