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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 …


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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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    Environment

    Growing wildfire prompts evacuation of High Level, Alta.

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    HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — A northern Alberta town and a nearby First Nation are being evacuated due to the threat of an encroaching wildfire.
    Thousands of people are being told to leave High Level, as well as the Bushe River Reserve, via Highway 58…


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  • HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — A northern Alberta town and a nearby First Nation are being evacuated due to the threat of an encroaching wildfire.

    Thousands of people are being told to leave High Level, as well as the Bushe River Reserve, via Highway 58 east of the communities since highways south and west have already been closed due to the blaze.

    The Chuckegg Creek fire has been burning for several days, but grew substantially from Sunday, when it covered about 25,000 hectares, to an estimated 69,000 hectares on Monday.

    At the time the evacuations were ordered, the flames were only about three kilometres from High Level.

    “The winds are pushing the smoke away from the Town of High Level. It looks very scary on the horizon, but in the Town of High Level the skies are blue and sunny and windy,” Mayor Crystal McAteer told a telephone news conference on Monday afternoon.

    Reception centres for evacuees have been set up in High Prairie and Slave Lake, and officials are arranging transportation for residents who can’t get out on their own.

    McAteer said the evacuation is being co-ordinated in zones. People should expect to be away for 72 hours.

    She said about 4,000 people from High Level were affected by the order, and another 750 from Bushe River.

    Earlier in the day, the town warned on its website that people should fill up their vehicles and collect important documents in case they were ordered to leave at short notice. Power has also been knocked out because of the fire, but was expected to be restored Monday evening.

    Mandetory evacuation orders for residents south and southeast of the town, and south of Bushe River, were issued early Monday.

    Provincial officials said the evacuation of High Level would take a maximum of eight hours, but since some people had already left, they said it could be completed sooner.

    Alberta Health Services said it had evacuated 20 patients from the Northwest Health Centre in High Level and relocated them to other communities.

    Scott Elliot, an incident commander with Alberta Wildfire, told the news conference that the wildfire was mostly headed away from High Level, but that city officials decided it was best for everyone to leave since the flames were so close.

    “If there was a subtle shift in the wind direction, that would increase the likelihood of rapid fire spread towards the community,” Elliot said.

    Crews are using sprinklers on structures on the edge of the town closest to the fire.

    McAteer said people were complying with the evacuation order.

    “People are of course afraid because they remember the wildfires of Fort McMurray, but we talked to a lot of the residents and reaffirmed that we were being proactive,” she said.

    A 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., destroyed one-tenth of the city and some 88,000 people were forced from their homes.

    Slave Lake, where a reception centre has been set up for residents of High Level, was also evacuated because of a wildfire in 2011 that destroyed parts of the community.

    The Alberta government issued a fire ban and restricted off-highway vehicle use for numerous parts of the province late last week due to forecasts that called for little precipitation and strong winds.

    Highway 16, a major thoroughfare between Edmonton and Prince George B.C., was forced to close in both direction Sunday when a wildfire crossed the roadway west of Edson, Alta., but was reopened early Monday.

    —By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

    The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Focus on traumatized boys critical to gender equality, new research shows

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    TORONTO — Boys in poor urban areas around the world are suffering even more than girls from violence, abuse and neglect, groundbreaking international research published on Monday suggests.
    The study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, along with …


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  • TORONTO — Boys in poor urban areas around the world are suffering even more than girls from violence, abuse and neglect, groundbreaking international research published on Monday suggests.

    The study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, along with similar new research, suggests an adequate focus on helping boys is critical to achieving gender equality in the longer term.

    “This is the first global study to investigate how a cluster of traumatic childhood experiences known as ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, work together to cause specific health issues in early adolescence, with terrible life-long consequences,” Dr. Robert Blum, the lead researcher for the global early adolescent study, said in a statement. “While we found young girls often suffer significantly, contrary to common belief, boys reported even greater exposure to violence and neglect, which makes them more likely to be violent in return.”

    The study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health looked at childhood traumas suffered by 1,284 adolescents aged 10 to 14 in more than a dozen low-income urban settings around the world such as the United States, China, the U.K., Egypt and Bolivia.

    Overall, 46 per cent of young adolescents reported experiencing violence, 38 per cent said they suffered emotional neglect and 29 per cent experienced physical neglect. Boys, however, were more likely to report being victims of physical neglect, sexual abuse and violence.

    While higher levels of trauma lead both boys and girls to engage in more violent behaviours, boys are more likely to become violent. Girls tend to show higher levels of depression.

    Separately, a new report to be released next month at an international conference in Vancouver concludes that focusing on boys is critical to achieving gender parity. The report from the Bellagio Working Group on Gender Equality — a global coalition of adolescent health experts — finds boys and men are frequently overlooked in the equality equation.

    “We cannot achieve a gender-equitable world by ignoring half of its occupants,” the report states. “It is crucial that boys and men be included in efforts to promote gender equality and empowerment.”

    For the past six years, a consortium of 15 countries led by the Bloomberg School of Public Health and World Health Organization has been working on the global early adolescent study. The aim is to understand how gender norms are formed in early adolescence and how they predispose young people to sexual and other health risks.

    Evidence gathered by the study indicates boys experience as much disadvantage as girls but are more likely to smoke, drink and suffer injury and death in the second decade of life than their female counterparts.

    The key to achieving gender equality over the next decade or so — as the United Nations aims to do — involves addressing conditions and stereotypes that are harmful to both girls and boys, the researchers say. They also say it’s crucial to intervene as early as age 10. The norm is now age 15.

    “Gender norms, attitudes and beliefs appear to solidify by age 15 or 16,” the working group says. “We must actively engage girls and boys at the onset of adolescence to increase total social inclusion and produce generational change.”

    Leena Augimeri, a child mental-health expert with the Child Development Institute in Toronto, agreed with the need to focus on boys as well as girls. At the same time, she said, the genders do require different approaches.

    “Boys are equally at risk,” said Augimeri, who was not involved in the studies. “When we look at the various issues that impact our children, we have to look at it from different perspectives and lenses and you can’t think there’s a one fit for all.”

     

    Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press


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