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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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Trans Mountain puts contractors on notice to get ready for pipeline restart

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Trans Mountain Pipeline

OTTAWA — Construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is set to restart in the next month, just in time for the official kick-off of the federal election.

Trans Mountain Corp., the federal crown agency that owns and operates the pipeline, said Wednesday that work on the terminals in Burnaby, B.C. is set to restart immediately, while work laying pipe on the route in parts of Alberta are on track to start within the next month. Construction contractors were told they have 30 days to hire workers, prepare detailed construction plans and mobilize equipment.

“This is a major milestone,” said Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Getting construction underway likely leaves many Liberals breathing a sigh of relief, including Sohi, whose riding is just a few kilometres from the Edmonton terminal where the pipeline begins. His already shaky re-election prospects would be even tougher if the pipeline remained stalled.

The federal campaign has to begin no later than Sept. 15 for an Oct. 21 vote, but Sohi said getting shovels in the ground on Trans Mountain has nothing to do with politics.

“I know people want to link this to elections,” he said. “I have never linked it to elections. I always tell that we owe it to Albertans, we owe it to Canadians, energy sector workers and communities who rely on middle class jobs that we get the process right.”

Sohi won in 2015 by less than 100 votes, one of only four Liberals elected in Alberta in the last election. All four seats are considered in play in this election, and anger in Alberta about the struggling oil industry is one of the reasons why.

Sohi visited with pipeline workers on site in Sherwood Park, Alta., on Wednesday. He told them that 4,200 people should be working on the project before the end of the year and the new completion date is in 2022. When the pipeline was initially approved in 2016, construction was supposed to be done by the end of this year.

Sohi also said the construction is going ahead “despite the fearmongering of some Conservative politicians to tell Canadians minutes after we approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that the construction will never happen.”

Edmonton Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux was not impressed with the news.

“Canadians have heard time and time again that Justin Trudeau wants to get pipelines built, yet in four years he has done the exact opposite,” Jeneroux said in an emailed statement.

The Conservatives say the Liberals have killed other pipelines and now have a new environmental assessment process coming in that will ensure no more pipelines are ever approved going forward.

“These decisions are all part of Justin Trudeau’s plan to phase out Canada’s oil and gas sector,” Jeneroux said.

The federal Liberals approved the Trans Mountain expansion in 2016, but the pressure to bring the project to fruition heightened in May 2018 when the government decided to buy the pipeline for $4.5 billion when Kinder Morgan Canada backed away under the uncertainty of numerous legal challenges and political fighting. The Liberals said the government would buy the pipeline, build the expansion and sell it back to a private investor.

The court decision three months later to rip up approval threw all those plans in jeopardy.

After another round of Indigenous consultations and a new review of the project’s impact on marine life off the coast of Vancouver, cabinet green-lighted the expansion for a second time in June.

Six British Columbia First Nations and at least two environment groups have filed new court challenges against the approval.

The Canadian Press


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Huawei executive’s defence team alleges Canadians were ‘agents’ of the FBI

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Huawei Headquarters

VANCOUVER — A defence team for a Chinese telecom executive is alleging Canadian officials acted as “agents” of American law enforcement while she was detained at Vancouver’s airport for three hours ahead of her arrest.

In court documents released this week, defence lawyers for Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou point to handwritten notes by Canadian officers indicating Meng’s electronics were collected in anticipation of a request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

The notes show the RCMP asked the FBI if the U.S. was interested in Meng’s luggage and that a Canada Border Services Agency officer wrote down Meng’s passcodes, while another questioned her about Huawei’s alleged business in Iran.

This happened before she was informed of her arrest, the defence says.

“The RCMP and/or CBSA were acting as agents of the FBI for the purpose of obtaining and preserving evidence,” alleges a memorandum of fact and law filed by the defence.

“The question that remains is to what extent and how the FBI were involved in this scheme.”

The materials collected by the defence were released ahead of an eight-day hearing scheduled for September, in which the defence is expected to argue for access to more documentation ahead of Meng’s extradition trial.

The Attorney General of Canada has yet to file a response and none of the allegations have been tested in court.

Meng’s arrest at Vancouver airport has sparked a diplomatic crisis between Canada and China and drawn international scrutiny of Canadian extradition laws.

She was arrested at the behest of the U.S., which is seeking her extradition on fraud charges in violation of sanctions with Iran.

Both Meng and Huawei have denied any wrongdoing. Meng is free on bail and is living in one of her multimillion-dollar homes in Vancouver.

The RCMP and CBSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the documents but have said in a response to a civil claim that border officials only examined Meng and her luggage for immigration and customs purposes.

Meng extradition trial won’t begin until Jan. 20, but the court documents shed light on her defence team’s planned arguments that her arrest was unlawful and for the benefit of the United States.

“These are allegations of a purposeful violation of a court order and the abuse of important Canadian legal norms for improper purposes, namely, to further the objectives of the requesting state,” the defence says.

They plan to argue that the U.S. committed an abuse of process by using the extradition proceedings for political and economic gain. Parts of the defence are comments by U.S. President Donald Trump that he would intervene in Meng’s case “if necessary.”

The seizure of electronics and questioning of Meng by border officials in Canada also follows a pattern of how Huawei employees have been treated at U.S. ports of entry.

“This targeting has included the apparent abuse of customs and immigration powers to search and question Huawei employees at various U.S. ports of entry,” the documents say.

The defence accuses officers of intentionally poor note keeping that obscures what exactly happened, including why the arrest plan apparently changed.

The documents suggest that Canadian officials initially planned to arrest Meng “immediately” after she landed, by boarding the plane before she got off. Instead, three CBSA officers immediately detained Meng when she disembarked the plane while two RCMP officers stood nearby and watched, despite their knowledge of the warrant calling for her “immediate” arrest, the defence says.

The defence argues spotty notes kept by the CBSA officers constitute a “strategic omission.”

“When assessed together, a clear pattern emerges from these materials: the CBSA and the RCMP have strategically drafted these documents to subvert the applicant’s ability to learn the truth regarding her detention,” the defence says.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


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