How COVID-19 exposed Canada’s treatment of migrant workers
There was a discrepancy between the discourses of the ‘heroism’ of Canada’s essential workers – many of whom are migrants – and the way they were actually treated
In the summer of 2020, the Cargill meatpacking plant in Alberta, Canada, had to shut down briefly because of a COVID outbreak among its mostly Filipino workforce. This was a major concern, not only because of the virus’s spread, but also because shutting down the plant negatively affected the food supply chain.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, was quick to imply that Filipino culture and work ethic that mandates going to work even when sick was to blame for the spread of COVID. But she conveniently forgot to mention that managers threaten workers with reprisal if they miss too many shifts, as well as ignoring structural workplace conditions. Hinshaw also implied that Filipinos spread COVID because of their purported cultural preference to live in large households, conveniently overlooking the systemic racism and classism that often forces people to do so.
According to a report my collaborators and I published in February, Filipino and other racialized migrant workers have a hard time accessing housing because of endemic racism against them by landlords and because of the perception that some migrant workers present security risks.
Two weeks after the outbreak, the government of Alberta allowed Cargill to re-open, despite the opposition of its workers. For the government and the company, it was perfectly acceptable for these workers to continue placing themselves in harms’ way, provided that they kept supply chains intact.
The case of the Cargill workers is one example of what geographer James Tyner calls necro-capitalism, or how capitalist structures make some bodies more vulnerable to premature death than others.
With racialized, working-class, migrant communities hit hardest by COVID, the pandemic revealed the extent to which they were at greater risk of illness and even premature death.
Heroes and targets
At the same time, government and corporate discourses about migrants as ‘essential workers’ and as ‘heroes’ was obscuring their vulnerability.
This was one of the key findings in another collaborative research I am conducting at York University, in partnership with GABRIELA-Ontario, an organization of women of Filipina descent, and Migrant Resource Centre Canada. In this project, we spoke to 78 migrant care workers – including personal support workers, nurses and in-home caregivers – across Canada about their experiences during the pandemic.
Many of the women we spoke to have encountered gendered racism as Asian women, who are stereotyped as being carriers of disease
Our conversations revealed over and over again the discrepancy between discourses of the heroism of essential workers, which became commonplace in the Canadian government and the media, and the way these workers were actually treated.
Many of the women we spoke to have encountered gendered racism as Asian women, who are stereotyped as being carriers of disease. Also, as healthcare workers, they are seen as being exposed to people with COVID.
The interviews showed that Filipina migrant care workers are both welcomed and deemed threatening. For instance, some care workers shared that while their employers openly acknowledge to them that they wouldn’t be able to function without their help, the same employers explicitly prohibit them from using their washrooms or from using their kitchens to eat.
Care workers also share the very real fears they faced when going to work, and the arduous employment conditions that they encountered. For instance, some of the care workers we interviewed were employed in long-term care homes where COVID-19 outbreaks took place. High rates of staff turnover meant that these care workers had to work double and triple shifts, leading to burn-out among those we interviewed.
The absence of clear protocols on occupational health and safety procedures also caused added stress. As care workers told us repeatedly, while they derived strength from knowing that their patients needed them, they were afraid of going to work because of potential exposure to COVID-19.
Some migrant caregivers found that their employers who were working from home demanded that they assume responsibilities that were not covered in their employment contracts, such as cooking and cleaning for the employer’s entire family, rather than only doing so for the children or the seniors under their care. The desire to get along with their employers, given that they were also living at home with them, made it hard for caregivers to draw boundaries.
For instance, to qualify for Canadian citizenship, migrant caregivers have to finish a two-year work contract, show the completion of one-year of post-secondary studies and pass an English or French language test showing ‘intermediate’ comprehension of the language.
With these challenging conditions, the government is giving contradictory messages. The educational requirements and language tests suggest that care work, which is seemingly deemed essential, cannot by itself be considered a contribution to Canadian society. Yet by virtue of being employed, care workers already show that they are contributing to Canadian society.
Migrant care workers are placed in a no-win situation: not only are they expected to continue working under labour conditions that have been made more intense because of the pandemic, they are still additionally required to meet ever-changing immigration and labour criteria to justify their continued stay in the country.
Given the reality that migrant care workers are crucial members of Canadian society, removing these educational and language requirements is one way to resolve these contradictions. In addition, migrant care workers should be given landed status on arrival. There should also be paid sick-leave policies to ensure that migrant care workers do not feel compelled to go to work even when they are sick – thus ensuring the spread of COVID-19 spread is limited. These and other policies will help protect migrant care workers.
Ultimately, understanding how we can usher in new norms and new values to reverse this – perhaps through a prioritization of care versus profit – is now more pressing than ever.
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