UFCW secures more open work permits for migrant workers in Canada

Toronto – June 24, 2020 – As COVID-19 outbreaks continue to impact farming operations across the country, UFCW Canada has secured dozens of open work permits for migrant workers hoping to escape abusive employers and dangerous work environments.

While much of Canada is seeing a decline in reported COVID-19 cases and deaths, and provinces and municipalities are slowly starting to reopen their economies, migrant workers have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, with hundreds of workers testing positive for COVID-19 and three migrant workers passing away from the virus in Ontario.

Throughout the pandemic, UFCW Canada has received over 200 calls from migrant workers reporting hazardous working conditions at farms and greenhouses, as well as substandard living quarters and negligent employers who are failing to protect workers from being exposed to the coronavirus.

In many cases, workers are labouring in close proximity to one another and are not able to practice the physical distancing measures that have been recommended by governments and public health officials. Migrant workers are also being told that they cannot wash their hands and go to the bathroom at work and are experiencing overcrowded living conditions that make them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

Further complicating this situation is the fact that migrant workers have minimal labour mobility and are often tied to a single employer, which means it can be difficult for them to leave an abusive or unsafe workplace. 

However, with the help of UFCW Canada and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA), more than 30 migrant workers in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia have succeeded in obtaining open work permits during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling them to escape an abusive employer, dangerous working or living conditions, or a lack of personal protective equipment at work.

Some of the applicants requested to leave their employer due to a lack of appropriate quarantine measures, as they were asked to work immediately upon arriving in Canada despite a requirement for them to self-quarantine for 14 days before beginning work.

Open work permits first became available in June 2019 after decades of advocacy from UFCW Canada calling for better protections for migrant workers experiencing physical, sexual, psychological, or financial abuse from their employer. Since that time, UFCW has helped over 50 migrant workers obtain the permits and leave harmful work environments.

“While these permits are a helpful temporary solution to migrant worker abuse, broader measures are needed to ensure that migrant workers can enjoy healthy and safe workplaces, are protected from the coronavirus, and are able to access humane living accommodations while working in Canada,” says UFCW Canada National Representative Santiago Escobar.

“Looking ahead, much more needs to be done to provide migrant workers with adequate living spaces, long-term work permits instead of seasonal ones, pathways to permanent residency in Canada, and the right to join a union at work,” he adds.

For more than three decades, UFCW Canada has worked in collaboration with the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) to lead the fight for migrant workers’ rights. To learn more about this important work, visit UFCW Canada’s Agriculture Workers website.