Vancouver archbishop appeals to Prime Minister on behalf of temporary farm workers

Pope Francis has urged that forgotten, invisible and abused farm labourers around the world should become the “centre of our concern.” (Photo by Ibrahim Servet Turan - 123RF)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver, BC- Canadian Catholic News] – The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed “cracks” in how Canada treats its migrant farm workers, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, says in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In a June 26, 2020 letter to the prime minister, the Vancouver archbishop said migrant farm workers, who often come from Mexico or Guatemala to work on local farms, are “very often taken advantage of” during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least three have died in Canada and many more have become infected with the virus.

“Throughout the country, these workers are frightened as they continue to work in hothouses and fields, while living in cramped quarters that preclude safe physical distancing,” the archbishop wrote.

He asked the prime minister to respond by putting new rules in place that could give farm workers the opportunity to seek permanent residency, which would “ensure their safety, protect their rights, and shift power away from those recruiters and employers who take advantage of them to keep their farms operating.”

Existing programs offer people in other lines of work an opportunity to become permanent residents and eventually Canadian citizens, wrote Archbishop Miller. He asked that the same benefit be extended to temporary farm workers, who during this pandemic have been deemed “essential” workers.

Other voices have made the same appeal to Trudeau. The Migrant Rights Network, a Canadian organization, has held rallies and spoken up in favour of extending immigration status to non-permanent residents in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Canada’s corporations profit off the intentional temporariness caused by a two-tiered immigration system,” said Migrant Rights Network spokesperson Sarom Rho, the Vancouver Sun reported. “Without access to emergency income supports, migrants have been working through the crisis without basic labour rights or health and safety precautions.”

Rho’s group calls for access to paid emergency leave, food banks, emergency shelters, and other supports that Canadians enjoy.

The Dignidad Migrante Society has also written to Trudeau and to B.C. Premier John Horgan, asking for more rights for migrant workers: 14 paid sick days a year, overtime and statutory holiday pay, two weeks of paid holiday time, and random workplace inspections to make sure living and working conditions are safe.

The number of temporary foreign workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 is rising in Ontario. On June 29, the province reported 257 new cases of the virus; 177 of those infected were migrant farm workers and all but two were linked to a single farm.

An advocacy group called Justice for Migrant Workers has said more than 1,000 workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Ontario, and three have died, since the start of the pandemic.

In B.C., the situation has not been as dire. An outbreak at a Kelowna nursery in March (which infected at least 19 workers) led to a provincially funded plan that had migrant workers arriving in B.C. housed in hotels and receiving meals, health care, and wages while they waited out the two-week quarantine period imposed on all travellers from outside the country.

Twenty-eight farm workers tested positive for COVID-19 while in isolation in B.C., which meant the prevention of that many potential outbreaks, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry June 25.

Fr. Richard Zanotti, CS, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Hispanic ministry, also signed the letter from Archbishop Miller. His ministry works closely with migrant farm workers in the Lower Mainland and he hopes changes made during the pandemic will improve living and working conditions for farm workers in Canada.

“I hope that all of this coming up with the coronavirus will create some long-range changes, for instance, in housing and how the workers are treated, in terms of salaries and other benefits, like overtime and sick leave,” he said.

Currently, housing situations for farm workers can be cramped, he said, with four people on bunk beds in a single shared room and as many as 20 people sharing the same house and kitchen. “It’s like a petri dish for the virus.”

It can be hard for temporary workers to access health care, he added, and those who think they might be sick can be fearful of testing positive for COVID-19 and losing their wages or being sent back to their home countries.

Zanotti said many farm workers have come to the archdiocese’s migrant ministry for counselling due to high anxiety and stress. Unfortunately, since the start of the pandemic he has been unable to meet with them in person for conversation or to celebrate Mass, offer confession, or share a meal. That leaves many of them feeling isolated and distraught, with he and his volunteers striving to do their best to stay in touch over phone calls and Whats App.

“We want to do direct ministry with them, but we also feel that advocacy on their behalf is also very important,” said Zanotti.

“The social teaching of the Church tells us we have to advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, and
the vulnerable. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Archbishop Miller said he hopes Trudeau will display the same concern for temporary farm workers, who “contribute so much to the wellbeing of all Canadians,” as he has for Canadian citizens during the pandemic.