Evidence of meeting #21 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was seasonal.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Robert Falconer  Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual
Syed Hussan  Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
Debbie Douglas  Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
Fernand Thibodeau  Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

June 22nd, 2020 / 2:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 21 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. Pursuant to the orders of reference of April 11 and May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its study of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today's meeting is taking place by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entire committee. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.

I would like to remind everyone to please use the language channel of the language they are speaking. If you intend to switch between Canada's official languages, please be sure to switch the channel first so it corresponds with the language you are speaking.

I would now like to welcome our witnesses for today. We have Robert Falconer, a research associate from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary; as well as Syed Hussan, executive director at Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Mr. Falconer, please proceed with your seven and a half minute opening remarks.

2:05 p.m.

Robert Falconer Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual

Dear honourable members of the committee, I want to begin my opening statement by thanking the committee for the opportunity to present on this very important topic of temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This topic is one which I have investigated as a researcher in immigration and refugee policy, and with which I have also had personal experience. My own father was a refugee from Chile, giving me the opportunity to improve and maintain my own fluency in Spanish, which led to summer jobs during my undergraduate career working in the orchards of B.C. with temporary foreign workers from Mexico.

Previous to my work with the School of Public Policy, I was also a client support worker in the temporary foreign worker program at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, located in Calgary, Alberta. In that capacity, I made several trips to the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta, to meet with workers, and to provide them resources in relation to their immigration status and employment.

It is with that context I hope to provide the members of the committee with an overview of the temporary foreign worker program in relation to Canadian agriculture that combines both data on the topic as well as personal experience.

In addressing this committee, it is important to acknowledge the long history of agricultural-related immigration to Canada since Confederation in 1867. For roughly the first 100 years of our almost 153-year history as a country, one of the primary focuses of our immigration system was to secure and expand our agricultural productivity.

The Immigration Act of 1869 established the basic framework of Canadian immigration policy in relation to labour at the beginning of Confederation, with several provisions that may resonate with committee members today. First, it was designed to attract immigrants that would contribute to Canadian economic productivity, especially in agriculture. Second, it sought to ensure the “safety and protection of immigrants en route and upon arrival in Canada”. It sought to regulate abuses commonly perpetrated against new arrivals. Finally, it provided for government agents to assist immigrants in arranging lodging and making connections in their chosen destinations.

Following the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, Canada began to rapidly expand its immigration program and recruit millions of farmers and farm labourers from overseas, leading to a massive 1,000% increase in the population of the Prairies, and the founding of Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces. This period came to be known as the wheat boom, a time in which Canada was the world’s fastest-growing economy. Many Canadians with Ukrainian, Polish, or other Eastern European ancestry can trace their roots to that period in which their grandparents and great-grandparents arrived to farm in Canada.

I will not go into detail with every act or decision in relation to Canadian agriculture and immigration, but for the purposes of this statement, I wish to reiterate that from the foundation of Canada until the signing of the first seasonal worker agreement in 1966, Canada made a concerted effort to expand, secure and protect its agricultural system through the recruitment and settlement of farmers and labourers on farms.

Shifting to today, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions with regard to the safety of workers, the security of our food supply chain and the appropriateness of the temporary foreign worker program when Canadians themselves are experiencing record high levels of unemployment.

In a forthcoming paper by the School of Public Policy, we find that the number of arriving workers in agriculture, food processing and transportation is 14% below the number that arrived last year, equal to a shortfall of approximately 3,800 workers during the onset of the primary agricultural season, including planting, calving and the Atlantic lobster season.

This shortfall, combined with the 14-day quarantine period, represents a significant loss in time, as well as workers, especially in consideration of purchases of seed, livestock and other equipment built around expectations for expanded production, and the necessary increase in workers to support it. It also has a human impact, which I will discuss further on. This loss may be most acutely felt in the primary work on farms, with a 14% reduction in relation to 2019, in meat and poultry plants, with a drop of 20%, and in seafood packing plants, with a loss of 60% of their foreign workers.

Calls to employ more Canadians in relation to the drop in arriving foreign workers may be well understood in current circumstances. I would caution, however, that this presents several difficulties.

First, producers and employers will need time and resources to train new employees during the onset of the full agricultural season. Second, Canadians may not actually respond to increased hiring incentives or initiatives by local farmers and producers in sufficient numbers to fill the labour gap. Data from Statistics Canada show that, adjusting for inflation, farmers actually have been willing to spend more on wages for employees. Work by the Conference Board of Canada, however, suggests that we may need to raise wages by upwards of 66% in order to completely offset an ongoing trend in declining domestic participation in agriculture.

Our own exploratory research into the matter, which I should emphasize is preliminary and subject to a more robust analysis, suggests that Canadians may not be as responsive to wage increases in the agricultural sector as foreign workers are. Therefore, increased hiring may offset the decline in domestic labourers, but may not actually fill the gap.

In the conclusion of my remarks, I wish to put a face to these numbers. Discussions of labour supply and productivity need to be contextualized in the humans they represent. Yesterday, it was reported on CBC News that a third worker has died from the coronavirus, located on a farm near Simcoe, Ontario. The worker joins Bonifacio Eugenio Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, both Mexican workers who died from the virus while working on Canadian farms.

In considering reforms to the temporary foreign worker program, we must keep in mind that improving the conditions for workers on farms and in processing plants is not a zero-sum game where Canadians must lose if workers are to benefit. In fact, both sides can win in this case. To that end, the committee may wish to explore some of the following ideas in relation to foreign workers and agriculture.

First, reconsider the access that TFWs have to employment insurance, especially in periods of pandemic and job loss, which may encourage them to take time off rather than risk the spread of disease.

Second, consider adapting the Atlantic immigration pilot to an agricultural immigration pilot, and provide workers with the ability to gain permanent residency through the accumulation of hours or with the support of an employer. Upwards of 45% of TFWs return to farms after three years, 39% over five years, and after 10 years, still a quarter remain. This shows that, despite being called temporary foreign workers, many of them come back repeatedly year after year.

Third, consider allowing farmers to immediately deduct the capital costs for constructing new housing for TFWs, including sufficient space for workers, and make ongoing inspections part of the work of both IRCC and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In fact, we may provide greater security to our food supply chain by addressing working conditions. We may also consider a retrospective, rather than innovative, look when we consider the permanency of foreign workers in agriculture. This means looking back on our history as a country that was built on a robust agricultural immigration program, and it is perhaps time to revisit that history with renewed understanding of the risks to our food supply chain and to workers themselves.

Thank you.

2:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you very much, Mr. Falconer.

Mr. Hussan, please go ahead with your opening remarks.

2:15 p.m.

Syed Hussan Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today on behalf of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a coalition of 27 migrant-led organizations and allies. I am also on the coordinating committee of the Migrant Rights Network, Canada’s national migrant justice alliance.

The truth is that a person’s ability to access health care, assert their rights at work, be with their families or protect themselves in a pandemic is directly linked to their citizenship. This is true because the law makes it so. Just as one example, migrant agricultural workers know that a single COVID-19 infection on a farm puts them all in immediate danger, but they cannot risk speaking out because doing so means termination, homelessness, loss of income and deportation.

On Saturday night, Juan Lopez Chaparro passed away. He is the third Mexican migrant farm worker to die in Ontario from COVID-19 following Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero and Rogelio Muñoz Santos. Their pictures are right here.

There are at least 1.6 million temporary or undocumented migrants in Canada, or one in every 23 people. Canada has failed to provide equal rights and support during COVID-19 to at least one in every 23 people. This includes over half a million people in the country with no immigration status, most of whom do not have access to Canada emergency response benefits or even health care.

Undocumented migrant women are forced to move in with abusive men. Families choose unassisted home birth over years of indebtedness to medical bills, and thousands have became homeless. Those who did not lose work faced dangerous conditions but without any essential worker wage top-up.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of migrant domestic workers are trapped by their employers who refuse to let them leave their homes even to buy groceries or send remittances home. These migrant care workers are forced to stay in these conditions to complete hours of work requirements toward permanent residency status. In addition, they must fulfill impossible language and educational assessments to have a chance to reunite with their families.

Over 850,000 people on study or postgraduate permits are unable to find work, have lost wages and are struggling. Many are only eating because of food banks, but post-secondary institutions have raised tuition fees, and existing immigration requirements mean that most will not qualify for permanent resident status.

Tens of thousands of migrant farm workers in Canada came here and are choosing to stay, despite fear of getting sick, because they cannot access income support. We released this report with complaints on behalf of over 1,000 migrant workers about increased racism, surveillance, wage theft, exploitation, labour intensification and inhumane housing.

A multi-tiered system of immigration, where some have permanent residency and therefore rights to health care, family unity and freedom from reprisals while others are temporary or without status, engenders exploitation. That inequality and exploitation have been exacerbated during COVID-19. Not only migrants are saying it. Consider an op-ed published on May 5, 2014, in the Toronto Star which said that this is a “basic issue of fairness” and “Canada needs to re-commit itself to bringing permanent immigrants here who have a path to citizenship”, authored by then MP, now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

Recommendation 16 from this very committee’s report in September 2016 called on Canada to “review the current pathways to permanent residency for all temporary foreign workers, with a view to facilitating access to permanent residency for migrant workers”.

Recommendation 19 from this committee’s study in December 2012, under the previous Conservative government, recommended that Canada should consider “offering better opportunities for temporary foreign workers to eventually become permanent immigrants”.

The reason that permanent immigration has always been a central component of any review on vulnerability and exploitation of non-permanent residents is simple. As Minister Carla Qualtrough said just three days ago, “There’s a power imbalance that exists in this system.” The power imbalance exists wherever there is temporary migration or people are undocumented. By denying them the rights that come with citizenship, laws and lawmakers are tipping the scale in favour of abuse, exploitation, exclusion and death.

We are going to provide this committee with detailed recommendations, but the solution is very simple. Ensure full immigration status for all migrants immediately without exclusion, without exemption, and ensure everyone arrives with full immigration status in the future. This is a matter of life and death.

I have a few final words. First, a path to citizenship or permanent residency is not the solution. A pathway, like the recently launched agri-food immigration pilot, is a promise of future security for some workers if they can jump through impossible hoops, leaving them more at the mercy of employers.

Second, increased inspections, while also necessary, will not solve the problem. Inspections ensure that employers are not breaking the law, but most of what employers are doing is legal. The law does not mandate social distancing, does not create national housing standards and is not a mechanism through which workers can complain.

Third, this is not just about being good enough to work, good enough to stay or guardian angels. Yes, migrants are in jobs that are essential during a public health pandemic, but whether migrants are disabled, homeless or unable to work, they must have the ability to take care of themselves and their families. Whether it is migrant sex workers or migrants working in warehouses, in construction or delivering food, every person is essential. No one deserves to be exploited. Everyone deserves to live.

We need a single-tier system of immigration. That means full immigration status for all in the country, and full immigration status for everyone who arrives in the future. This is essential. It's necessary. It must happen now. People are dying.

Thank you.

2:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Hussan.

We are going to proceed with questions, beginning with Mrs. Kusie, for six minutes.

2:20 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to all of our witnesses for being here today.

Mr. Falconer, I really appreciated your testimony. My interest in inviting you to this committee was—earlier during the pandemic—specific to an article you had in one of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute publications on accreditation of physicians. You were concerned that.... I believe the title of the article had “brain waste” within it.

It seemed the crux of your article was the concern that the current government was not providing enough oversight, or provisions in the pandemic environment to allow those with much-needed medical designations, skills and experience from other nations to achieve accreditation and to be used completely and effectively for the pandemic response.

I was hoping you might be able to share your findings from that article, as well as some of the information in that article with the group here as we reflect upon the lessons of COVID-19 and prepare for future similar scenarios.

2:20 p.m.

Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual

Robert Falconer

Yes, I can absolutely touch on that as well.

What we found in preparing the research—and this is specific to immigrant physicians working in Canada but can be generalized to many other health care workers, including nurses, lab technologists, other front-line workers and workers involved in testing—is that it is taking an exorbitantly long time for a newcomer to recertify. When I say “newcomer”, it might sound odd. Maybe the more appropriate term I should be using is “international medical graduate”, which would include those who may be Canadian citizens or permanent residents but who studied abroad for their medical degree.

We found that it is taking upwards of five to 10 years for a newcomer or an international medical graduate to recertify within Canada. It is also costing a considerable amount, upwards of 42% of an IMG's or newcomer's median income during the period. This doesn't just involve the costs of recertification itself, which include things like fees and licensing requirements. This also includes the foregone benefits, like the income they could be earning during that time, the costs of buying textbooks to recertify, and the costs of transportation associated with travelling to various interviews. For some, especially those in more vulnerable parts of the population, this might mean that it's simply impossible to practise in Canada.

I will use a real-life example. I was speaking with an immigration lawyer who recently helped a refugee gain protected person status in Canada. The refugee was a very well-regarded heart surgeon from Colombia who was fluent in both official languages, English and French. However, because of the manner in which this refugee came to Canada, the individual came without a lot of assets and income and was working for Uber. This means that even with the knowledge the person has, he or she is very unlikely to recertify due to the financial barriers.

Some of this is due to a limitation on the residency seats available for IMGs, international medical graduates, at the provincial level, but it's not exclusively that. Immigrants often arrive in Canada with the unfounded expectation that because they qualified under the federal immigration streams, they are qualified to work. They are sadly disappointed when they're unable to help.

I noticed that recently the Province of Quebec decided it wanted to increase the number of what it calls essential workers coming to Quebec. However, I noted that many of them would need access to a licence in order to practise. Even if they arrived next month, it's likely that they would not be able to actually help out in the COVID-19 pandemic until much further down the road.

I know there are plenty of questions for the other panellists here, who can provide valuable insight as well, so I'll finish by saying that this pandemic is helping us to consider what barriers to entry are actually necessary. I can understand our concerns about public health and safety with regard to licensure of newcomers, but others, such as Ireland, France, the U.K., New York, New Jersey and several other states in the U.S. have decided to arrange everything to allow immigrants to practise under an associate model, meaning they practise under the supervision of a fully licensed medical professional.

New York, for example, will be completely waiving the requirement that they have a licence in order to practise. I wouldn't necessarily suggest that, but I do think that this pandemic is an opportunity to reassess how exactly we license newcomers and how we can work with the provinces and the federal government to ensure that part of their immigration streams involve a licensing stream as well.

2:25 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

That's excellent. I think you've provided a lot of policy suggestions and best practices, and places to look for those best practices.

Based on that testimony and your previous testimony, I think as we go forward after the pandemic, the labour force will need to be completely re-evaluated and maybe even redefined. Can you provide any suggestions to legislators as we go forward into this new labour environment?

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Please be very brief, Mr. Falconer, as we're out of time.

2:25 p.m.

Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual

Robert Falconer

To go with the example from Mr. Hussan, I think you should reconsider the role of temporary foreign workers and their potential place as permanent residents within Canada. We are worried about our food security. That would be the big one. Finally, again, it's okay to bring newcomers here to Canada and to want them to arrive, but I want them to be able to practise their professions, especially on the front lines.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Kusie.

Mr. Housefather, please, for six minutes.

2:25 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you to both witnesses.

Mr. Falconer, I agree very much. As a mayor and now as an MP, I have been working to try to get Quebec to change the requirements with respect to foreign medical personnel and international graduates. Unfortunately, most of this is really provincial and in the college of physicians, but I'd be interested in chatting about that offline at a future date.

I wanted to ask both you guys about language requirements. One of the things that I worked on as chairman of the justice committee in the last Parliament was a study on human trafficking. What we recommended was that temporary foreign workers needed to receive documentation, including health documentation, in their actual language, their own language, not only in English and French.

Given the fact that many documents are still not available in Spanish, for example, with respect to many of the workers who are now in our farms, or in Tagalog or other languages, I think there may be a breakdown in communication, where temporary foreign workers do not know all the rights they have and are then not able to exercise their rights.

I'm wondering if either of you have any recommendations in regard to languages.

2:25 p.m.

Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Syed Hussan

I think the simple notion is that migrants know that their housing and working conditions, the way they're being treated, is unjust and unfair. People know when their rights are being broken. This is not about information. It's about power. If you speak up, you'll get deported. You'll get terminated, you'll become homeless and you'll be be kicked out of the country. How are you going to assert your rights? This is the entire structure. We need to move away from this notion that people don't know enough or need rights education. What they need is the ability to autonomously take care of themselves, right?

In COVID-19, or at any other point, frankly, you are making decisions every day to take care of yourself. You decide where to go, when to cover your face, and where not to go. Migrants don't have that power. It's not because they don't know it. Similarly, the entire conversation on human trafficking makes it seem as if there are very few bad apples, and it's a question of criminality and illegality and that's what needs to be dealt with. No. The problem is essentially the federal immigration law and the provincial labour laws that are working in tandem to create insecurity.

There are few rare and exceptional moments when people are in cases that could be considered as trafficking, and we work with those people. By and large the vast majority, the one in 23 people in this country who are non-permanent residents, are facing exploitation and abuse as a result of the laws that have been made in Parliament, not because of a trafficker.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Again, I understand the point. I still think that having access to materials in your own language is pretty invaluable and important in order to know how to exercise those rights.

I now have a question for Mr. Falconer, regarding the recent penalties that the IRPR announced with respect to ensuring that employers have to help their employees follow public health orders, including the Quarantine Act, which gives some pretty hefty penalties to employers. Their penalties range up to a million dollars and permanent bans on hiring foreign workers. Do you think that is going to help in terms of the number of foreign workers who have contracted COVID-19 and help to have the public health requirements be met by these employers?

2:30 p.m.

Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual

Robert Falconer

With respect to that, I think the biggest issue of course will be enforcement and knowing exactly when there are violations going on.

Actually, the best example I can of think of with regard to where there could be better potential employment is a suggestion for greater inspections in going around to the farms. They of course [Technical difficulty—Editor] involving the CFIA. Actually, in terms of personal experience, when I was working in the orchards in B.C., the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was around regularly, and not necessarily for the purposes of reviewing the conditions of workers. They had to come because they wanted to test the condition of the food and food safety. That was due to exports or even domestic consumption within Canada.

I think that either training for IRPR liaison officers or empowering CFIA officers with the knowledge and ability to inspect working conditions and enforce public health measures would go a far way to actually really knowing how to enforce the restrictions you mentioned previously.

2:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Syed Hussan

I want to mention that we issued this report in which we have complaints about employers breaking the Quarantine Act, and I have offered personally to ESDC on three occasions to look at them, through the inspectors, and they haven't taken us up on the offer.

Also, for most of the things that are happening outside of the Quarantine Act, this isn't about.... First of all, the inspections are not happening despite us trying to physically force the information to the inspectors, but also, it's not happening in quarantine. It's happening outside it. The problem is that what the employers are doing is legal, and people are falling sick and people are dying. I think we need to be very clear that you can only inspect existing laws, and the laws are broken.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

Mr. Chair, do I have any time left?

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

You have 35 seconds.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

Anthony Housefather Liberal Mount Royal, QC

My colleague, Mr. Kusmierczyk, who is the parliamentary secretary to Minister Qualtrough, has heard your offer to assist. I know that you guys helped the B.C. government recently and did some training in B.C., so I'm sure he'll pass on that message to his colleagues since I don't have any time left.

Thank you to both of you for being here. I really appreciate it.

2:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Housefather.

Ms. Chabot, you have six minutes. Please go ahead.

2:30 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to the two witnesses.

I'm going to begin with Mr. Hussan.

Mr. Hussan, your civil society group is a staunch advocate of temporary foreign workers. You talked about the challenges they face, which involve housing, health conditions and occupational health and safety. You released a report on those challenges. You are certainly a credible source.

The conditions you're condemning, are they perennial problems that have always existed, or has the COVID-19 crisis made them worse?

2:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Syed Hussan

These are perennial problems. Our report is called “Unheeded Warnings” because we've been raising these warnings for half a century. Migrant farm workers have been coming to the country for 53 years.

2:35 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Mr. Chair, there was no interpretation when Mr. Hussan began speaking.

2:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Syed Hussan

I'm sorry. I didn't hear the translation.

2:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Continue. You're good to go.