Feds failed to ensure farms protected migrant workers from COVID-19: Auditor general

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Published December 9, 2021 at 2:11 pm

OTTAWA — The federal government is failing to ensure agricultural producers are properly protecting migrant workers from COVID-19, according to Canada’s auditor general, including in some cases where there is evidence to suspect health and safety violations.

The explosive finding is contained in a new report from auditor general Karen Hogan released Thursday, following numerous outbreaks among temporary foreign workers living in cramped conditions on farms since the start of the pandemic.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change says it has confirmed the deaths of six of migrant workers from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, though the advocacy group says the actual number is likely far higher.

The Liberal government promised new requirements for agricultural producers as well as tens of millions in new funding at the start of the pandemic to protect the roughly 50,000 people who come to Canada as seasonal farm workers each year.

Those new requirements included proper accommodations for quarantining migrant workers for 14 days after their arrival in Canada as well as those who test positive for COVID-19, and measures to manage outbreaks

Yet while inspectors at Employment and Social Development Canada deemed virtually all farms compliant with those regulations, Hogan says the vast majority of those passing grades came without proper inspections.

“We found that the department assessed almost all employers as compliant with the COVID-19 requirements … despite having gathered little or no evidence to demonstrate this,” the auditor general’s report reads.

“In our view, inspections lacked the diligence and urgency that were needed in light of both the pandemic circumstances and the department’s own policies.”

The report adds that inspectors had evidence suggesting employers were violating requirements, but “there was no evidence that the department challenged or followed up with employers. … The department still found the employers compliant.”

Officials have also been slow or failed to properly inspect facilities where outbreaks are occurring, the auditor general found. 

The auditor general’s report says a number of problems are to blame, including excessive workloads for inspectors, many of whom are relatively new to their positions, and a lack of urgency within the department.

It also notes all inspections have been conducted virtually since March 2020. Those virtual inspections have largely relied employers submitting pictures and videos of their facilities, as well as interviews with workers.

While the audit was supposed to cover the first nine months of the pandemic, the report says the problems were so troubling that the auditor general’s office decided to continue working on the issue into 2021.

Yet despite assurances from senior officials at Employment and Social Development Canada about their commitment to addressing the shortcoming, the auditor general found the problems actually got worse.

“We found that the quality of the department’s quarantine inspections worsened during spring and summer 2021, with problems in about 88 per cent of the quarantine inspections we reviewed,” the report reads.

The department also came in for criticism over its failure to establish a minimum standard that employers have to meet when it comes to housing migrant workers, even though it first promised to do so in 2018, two years before the pandemic.

Among those pre-pandemic concerns were overcrowding and poor quality accommodations, issues that had been raised by workers, advocacy groups and even foreign governments whose citizens have tended to come to Canada to work.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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