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Migrant farm worker review prompts renewed calls for reforms, protections

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  • OTTAWA — In midsummer 2018, while many Canadians were enjoying cold drinks on a hot day, a group of migrant farm labourers in Southern Ontario made a desperate phone call.

    The workers had been recruited from their homes in Central America as temporary foreign workers. They were told they’d earn a decent wage in exchange for regulated work on Canadian farms, with accommodations provided.

    But they allege they were made to work 12- and 14-hour days and forced to live in squalid conditions. A group of 20 was assigned to one small home, with up to eight people sharing one bedroom. Their passports were taken away. Earlier in the year, during the cold winter months, they had to beg for heating. When the heat finally came, their pay was docked to cover the cost.

    Santiago Escobar, a representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been supporting migrant workers in Canada for many years, said these farm workers were recruited by a temporary employment agency. The agency would move them around to different farms every couple of weeks or months, often placing them in jobs with no training or knowledge of how to do the work, he said.

    At one place, they harvested mushrooms. At another, they worked with poultry.

    “Some of them were even injured while working and they were told that they could not go to see a doctor,” Escobar said.

    When they’d reached their limit, they phoned Escobar’s union.

    Authorities were called and a police investigation is ongoing. But their nightmare experience is one that has been lived by many migrant farm workers in Canada.

    That’s why the federal government launched a review in 2017 of the “primary agriculture” stream in Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. It covers seasonal agriculture workers, low-wage and some high-wage temporary workers.

    The results were quietly published last month.

    The program allowing temporary foreign workers is meant to help employers fill job vacancies when Canadians are not available. The government is supposed to make sure employers use the program to respond only to real labour shortages, but concerns have been raised repeatedly over the years about migrant workers’ being tied to employers who have abused them by making them work long hours, cutting their paycheques with arbitrary fees and offering poor living conditions.

    In 2017, according to government figures, about 35,000 employers got permission to bring in temporary workers for 97,000 positions. Nearly two-thirds of those were in primary agriculture.

    Farm workers are particularly vulnerable because they often work in remote locations and the work itself can be hazardous, involving heavy equipment and hard labour.

    The federal review involved extensive consultations with employers and workers — over 490 stakeholders provided input. A housing study and labour-market analysis was also completed.

    The findings highlighted a key point: Canadians are increasingly unwilling to work on farms, which means agriculture businesses will continue to seek temporary foreign workers to meet their labour needs.

    Employers told government they face an onerous and outdated application process and asked for less red tape for employers proven to be at low risk of abuse. Producers also want to broaden the definitions of what kinds of farm work is eligible for temporary foreign labour. Currently, only farm work involving products on a specified list is eligible. The “national commodity list” includes fruits, vegetables, flowers, tobacco and various animals, but not grains, oilseeds or maple products.

    “Canadian farmers continue to undertake extensive efforts to recruit and retain Canadians first, but tight margins, seasonality, and remote farm locations all present challenges when trying to hire Canadians,” said Mary Robinson, a Prince Edward Island potato and grain farmer who’s president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

    Recruitment and promotion of opportunities in the farm sector are a priority, but job vacancies are creating problems, she said. Currently the primary agriculture sector has 60,000 vacancies across Canada. By 2025, that number expected to balloon to 110,000.

    That’s why one of the recommendations of the federal program review has producers concerned. It asks Ottawa to consider placing caps on the numbers of migrant farm workers accepted to Canada to ensue employers aren’t “overusing TFWs.”

    “Despite the public perception, agricultural jobs are not ‘low-skilled’ and require unique skill sets that aren’t always readily available or of interest to Canadians in their areas,” Robinson said.

    “We’re keen to better connect agricultural opportunities with Canadians but the TFW program is not what’s preventing this from taking place. While there are many opportunities to educate Canada on agricultural jobs, there will continue to be a significant need for TFWs for the foreseeable future and artificially imposed caps don’t fix the fact that Canadian farmers are price-takers competing in global markets.”

    The federal review has also recommended: increasing wages to attract more Canadians to take farm jobs; exploring the idea of allowing migrant workers better access to permanent residency and offering them open work permits, to allow them to quickly leave employers in cases of abuse; and establishing a minimum housing standard for workers.

    Since March 2015, Service Canada has been conducting farm inspections to ensure that employers are offering proper working and housing conditions to migrant workers. Those inspections have since increased and government has been naming and shaming those caught breaking the rules. Violators can also face financial penalties or be banned from the program. So far, 129 companies have been cited for violations.

    But Escobar says despite this, his union has not seen a marked difference on the ground for many migrant farm workers.

    He says he is happy to see the federal review acknowledge that temporary foreign workers are facing abuses in Canada and welcomes the recommendations aimed at giving more rights and protections to workers.

    “But a key part of this is how to implement it,” he said.

    “If you live in rural Ontario or rural British Columbia, you don’t have access to Service Canada. You don’t have access to a toll-free number to call … this is why we are calling on the government to partner with us, because we have access to workers, we are familiar with their issues.”

    Employment Minister Patty Hajdu wasn’t available for an interview, but her spokesperson, Veronique Simard, says the federal government is still considering the recommendations, adding that “significant improvements” have already been made to the migrant farm-worker program.

    She pointed to several pilot programs — one in Atlantic Canada and a new one for northern and rural areas of Canada — that offer an expedited pathway to permanent residency for foreign workers. There is also a pilot project in British Columbia where government has spent $3.4 million over two years to help organizations that support temporary foreign workers dealing with potential abuse by their employers.

    “Our government has taken steps to ensure that Canadians have the first opportunity at available jobs, that the rights of foreign workers are protected, and that the program is responsive to Canadian labour market needs,” Simard said. “Information collected through the review will serve as a key input in the consideration of ways to modernize the primary agriculture stream.”

    —Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.

    Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


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    National

    Davie, rivals square off over future of multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan

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  • OTTAWA — The president of Davie Shipbuilding says he is confident the Quebec-based shipyard will be tapped to build two new ferries included in this week’s federal budget.

    But James Davies says it is time the federal government stop rewarding other shipyards for failing to deliver new vessels to the navy and coast guard, and officially admit his company into the multibillion-dollar national shipbuilding plan.

    The comment came late Wednesday as top officials from Davie and its two bitter rivals, Vancouver-based Seaspan Shipyards and Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding, appeared one after the other before the Senate finance committee.

    Seaspan and Irving were selected through the shipbuilding strategy in 2011 as the two shipyards responsible for building what at the time was estimated to be $35 billion worth of new vessels for the navy and coast guard.

    Davie also competed but was passed over and has since been forced to fight for scraps outside the plan.

    That includes the provision of an interim resupply vessel for the navy and three second-hand icebreakers for the coast guard.

    Davies also told the committee he did not think any other shipyard could provide the two new ferries included in the budget. They will replace two existing ferries, one of which operates between Quebec and Prince Edward Island and the other between Nova Scotia and P.E.I. The budget does not provide any further details, including cost or when they will be built.

    Despite his sunny view of his company’s capability, Davies was clearly focused on getting his shipyard admitted into the national shipbuilding plan. He noted that, seven years after it was launched, both Seaspan and Irving are continuing to get work despite not having delivered a ship, and the plan’s overall costs have doubled.

    “A deal with no consequence of failure is toothless,” Davies said. “Consequence means that in the light of such failure, the government needs the ability to choose an alternative supplier for future contracts.”

    That includes potentially breaking up the work that, under the current arrangement, is almost entirely the purview of the other two yards, he said, and contracts not yet awarded.

    Davies specifically mentioned 10 large coast guard vessels that were promised to Seaspan in 2013 at an estimated cost of $3.3 billion, but construction of which won’t realistically start until sometime in the mid- to late-2020s.

    During his own appearance, Irving Shipbuilding president Kevin McCoy defended his shipyard’s work to date, telling the committee that the first of 21 vessels Irving has been tasked to build, an Arctic patrol ship for the navy, will be delivered this summer.

    Progress is also being made on five others, McCoy said, as well as the navy’s new, $60-billion warship fleet, which will be built in the coming decade.

    The original cost of those warships was estimated at $26.2 billion, while the first Arctic ship was initially expected in 2015, but McCoy nonetheless said there has been a lot of false information and rhetoric about the state of the plan — and of Irving.

    Seaspan chief executive officer Mark Lamarre similarly said a short time later that work is advancing on the West Coast as three fisheries science vessels for the coast guard are near completion after several delays, some of which were caused by faulty welding.

    Steel has also started to be cut on the first of two long-overdue resupply vessels for the navy, he said.

    Lamarre admitted Seaspan has faced challenges, but he said difficulties were inevitable given that it had been a generation since the government and shipbuilding industry launched such a massive project.

    Both sides have learned some hard lessons over the years that are now being applied, he added.

    While they didn’t mention Davie, the Seaspan and Irving officials also both pushed back against any suggestions of opening up or otherwise changing the national shipbuilding strategy, saying a fair competition was held in 2011.

    James Irving, co-chief executive officer of J.D. Irving Ltd., which owns the Halifax yard, said his company invested $450 million of its own money with the “good faith” understanding the strategy would not be changed.

    — Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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    Winnipeg labour leader quits; cites sexist comments, treatment by men

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  • WINNIPEG — A labour leader in Manitoba has resigned from her job over what she says have been sexist remarks and dismissive treatment by some of her male colleagues in the labour movement.

    Basia Sokal surprised about 50 people at a Winnipeg Labour Council meeting Tuesday night when she announced she was resigning as president after two years on the job. The council is an advocate on municipal labour issues in the city and is part of the Canadian Labour Congress.

    “In the last 12 months alone, I have seen and heard and been experiencing some of the worst things that you could ever imagine,” Sokal told the crowd.

    “I’ve got about six pages of things that have been said to my face … and I just want to mention that these were all said by brothers — brothers in the movement, brothers of labour.”

    Some men made comments about her breasts, Sokal said. Others told her to just agree with what she was being told.

    “‘You women are all the same. If you don’t like what is going on, why don’t you just leave?'” she said one man told her.

    She did not mention anyone’s name.

    It became clear, Sokal said, that she was expected to keep her opinions to herself and defer to others.

    In an interview Wednesday, she said she took her concerns to the Canadian Labour Congress last spring and was told there would be some sort of followup. She also spoke to officials at Manitoba NDP headquarters about one man who was on a party committee, she said.

    Sokal was directed to the federal party, she said, which told her in February it was still looking into the matter but had been busy with other things.

    Sokal said she felt she was running out of options.

    “There are several people … higher up in the labour movement, that knew what was going on,” she said.

    “The systems don’t allow for change.”

    Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said he was surprised by Sokal’s resignation and suggested that workplaces need to improve.

    “Those are serious issues. They’re unacceptable. They’re wrong in the labour movement. They’re wrong in any kind of work environment.”

    The Canadian Labour Congress did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Sokal said she would like to see changes in the labour movement, starting with a more inclusive environment.

    “I want to see different voices at the table and not just the typical Old Boys club that it actually continues to be.”

    Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press


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    march, 2019

    fri8mar - 30aprmar 85:30 pmapr 30Real Estate Dinner Theatre5:30 pm - (april 30) 10:00 pm

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