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29 Jan 2024

Canada: Report by union outlines health & safety risks for seasonal migrant farmworkers in Canada, incl. housing, physical, biological & psychological hazards

In January 2024, The United Food and Commercial Workers Union published a report, titled ‘Status of Migrant Agricultural Workers in Canada 2023: Special Health & Safety Report’, exploring the critical health and safety issues experienced by migrant farmworkers in Canada. The report builds on concerns raised in September 2023 by UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery regarding temporary foreign worker programs, including his calls for the need for Canadian companies to implement human rights due diligence.

The report notes that migrant farmworkers in Canada are recruited through the Primary Agriculture Stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The Primary Agriculture Stream is an umbrella programme enabling the recruitment of workers by employers through four different streams, one of which is the Seasonal Worker Program (SAWP). The report notes workers on this scheme may be required to pay recruitment fees, which may require them to take out high-interest loans. The report notes that upon arrival, employers can withhold workers’ passports or/and revoke contracts, and migrants often do not complain due to the threat (actual or potential) of deportation.

The report particularly focuses on health and safety issues in the agricultural sector, including:

  • Housing hazards: Farms are responsible for migrant farmworker accommodation, and living conditions can be hazardous, including due to a lack of proper sanitation and maintenance. Issues include a lack of clean access to water, poor plumbing, and inadequate waste management, leading to the risk of disease spread. Overcrowding is also an issue, leading to poor airflow and respiratory problems. Infestations are also a problem.
  • Physical hazards: These include risks due to machinery and equipment, and weather-related risks amid extreme temperatures, such as heat stress for workers in greenhouses and those working outside without protection, and exposure to extreme cold during winter. Machinery and equipment injuries include tractor accidents, getting tangled in equipment such as conveyor belts, injuries from heavy lifting and loading, exposure to chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, prolonged exposure to loud noises, and a lack of training, among other issues.
  • Biological hazards: this includes exposure to plants, animals, and microbes, which can lead to contact with harmful bacteria and parasites.
  • Psychological hazards: Isolated, long working hours and exposure to the elements can lead to harmful mental health impacts, such as loneliness, stress and anxiety. This is catalysed by the seasonal nature of work which creates insecurity, and the pressure to meet stringent production targets can also lead to burnout. Harassment and violence is also prevalent in the workplace, augmented through remote working environments and a lack of visibility for this transient workforce.

The report goes on to discuss the use of collective bargaining agreements to protect the health and safety of migrant workers, with risk assessment and management a critical component.

The report also discusses union representation and suggests adopting a ‘European style’ sectoral bargaining approach, where a labour committee of migrants and unions negotiate a ‘master contract’ for agricultural farmworkers. The terms of the contract would be overseen by the union, to support the migrants as union members. The report suggests the union could also manage open work permits.

The report concludes with 12 recommendations, including: access to collective bargaining, implementation of regulations and fines; improved housing; reduced pesticide exposure, improved safety training; removed language barriers; increased healthcare access; established worker support programmes; promotion of mental health; community engagement; empowering workers with knowledge; auditing; and a series of suggested reforms for the federal government, provincial governments, and municipal governments.