Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has apologized for the deaths of two Mexican migrant workers in Ontario from COVID-19, and acknowledged the program that brought them to Canada was "in need of an overhaul."

Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program has come under international scrutiny after a series of coronavirus outbreaks in the Windsor-Essex region of Ontario and the deaths of Bonifacio Eugenio Romero on May 30, and Rogelio Muñoz Santos on June 5, both around Windsor, Ont. The situation has led the Mexican government to put the brakes on sending migrant workers to some Canadian farms.

In Parliament on Wednesday, NDP MP Brian Masse raised concerns over substandard working conditions at farms, and named the two dead workers, accusing Qualtrough of having "signed their death warrants" in allowing the program to continue despite warnings from migrant rights groups.

"We are terribly sorry that this happened in Canada. This shouldn’t have happened, and we’re working very hard to figure out what happened," said Qualtrough, the MP for Delta, of the two deceased. She said Canada was working with Mexico, as well as employers and farmers to obtain more details.

"We are very proud of the way we have worker protections in this country, but the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is in need of an overhaul, and we are working to make sure that workers’ rights are protected," added the minister.

B.C. advocate asks for more federal oversight

Qualtrough's acknowledgement Wednesday of fundamental problems with the migrant worker program comes after her office told National Observer two days earlier that, "from the very beginning, the health and safety of temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a top priority."

Qualtrough's office was responding to concerns raised by a migrant rights advocate in B.C. over the responsiveness of Service Canada to complaints from migrant workers on farms.

Byron Cruz, a member of the Sanctuary Health collective in British Columbia, part of the Migrant Rights Network, said in an interview that some employers who have hired temporary foreign workers should be subject to more rigorous federal investigations.

Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has apologized for the deaths of two Mexican migrant workers in Ontario from COVID-19, and acknowledged the program that brought them to Canada was "in need of an overhaul."

He said Service Canada has been slow to respond to some complaints, such as farm owners offering insufficient food to workers, selling it at expensive prices or not providing enough utensils for workers to eat with.

“People should be treated with dignity. I know that this situation is hard for migrant workers ... because, of course, these farms are the ones who are bringing them, and sometimes they appreciate that,” said Cruz.

“The problem is that they are taking advantage of migrant workers ... for each migrant worker that complains, there are thousands of other people who want the position.”

As of June 12, Service Canada has initiated “almost 713 inspections" of migrant-worker employers, according to Qualtrough's office, and has completed 464 inspections so far this season.

Most of those were in relation to the 14-day quarantine period that temporary foreign workers are supposed to undergo upon their arrival in Canada, according to the minister's office.

Inspections being done virtually

All Service Canada inspections of employers who participate in the program are now being conducted virtually, given the government’s own precautions over the pandemic.

The federal government introduced new rules in April for employers of temporary foreign workers, requiring them to allow workers to quarantine upon arrival in Canada, and to pay them during this period.

Abusing this system is supposed to void an employer’s eligibility for the government’s $1,500 support for mandatory migrant worker isolation. An employer could also be hit with up to $1 million in penalties or a ban on future migrant worker employment.

Employers should also be providing disinfecting products and setting up physical-distancing measures if more than one worker is in quarantine at the same time.

Service Canada can launch an inspection without notice, and investigators are supposed to call or email the employers and ask them to provide information within 48 hours, such as pay stubs, photos of the rooms where workers are being housed, and proof of sanitation products.

Qualtrough’s office could not provide a provincial breakdown of the inspection statistics.

"While we have taken important steps, we recognize there is more to do to protect temporary foreign workers in this country, and we are committed to looking at additional steps we can take in order to do so," said a spokesperson for the minister.

Meanwhile, Cruz gave credit to B.C.’s Interior Health Authority for acting quickly after an earlier COVID-19 outbreak at a migrant worker farm in Kelowna.

The B.C. government took over housing and feeding all temporary foreign workers arriving for seasonal farm work in order to ensure a 14-day isolation period. The province has been paying for hotel rooms and food near Vancouver International Airport and says it is also providing social and cultural support to workers.

Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

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"She said Canada was working with Mexico, as well as employers and farmers to obtain more details."
. . . So, with everyone except migrant workers themselves. Why does this not surprise me?

I also notice the implication of the remote inspection process (which is obviously useless): Facilities are assumed to be safe enough for the workers, but not remotely safe enough for real people like inspectors.

As always, Capitalism's assumptions of what constitutes acceptable profit margins holds sway over every so-called freemarkiet economy. We have reached the point where not only our indentured foreign workers, or our "illegal"/trafficked workers have to suffer appalling work conditions but capitalist greed has expanded to include our gig economy, the unpaid "interns", the underpaid "self employed", the sub-standard, un-unionized, unprotected work places, and what do you know!? That includes our youth, our un-employed graduates, our vulnerable people compelled to accept work that is likely to kill them, one way or another.

We think of the off shore workers in places like China, South East Asia, Phillippines, the Middle East as the new exploited "garment workers" and "mill girls" of the 19th and early 20th Century North America's gilded age. Well wake up everybody. Right here in holier than thou Ontario we have 3rd world exploitation.