Advocacy group calls for revamp to support migrant workers

'As it currently stands, the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program is systemic slavery'

Advocacy group calls for revamp to support migrant workers

Following the death of a Jamaican farm worker in Ontario earlier this month, migrant workers’ rights advocates are calling for improved safety measures and a revamp of the system to better support workers.

“Human beings are being treated like machines,” Syed Hussan, executive director at Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said in a CTV News report.

This follows the death of a Jamaican farm worker earlier this month.

On Aug. 14, 57-year-old Garvin Yapp was fatally injured while operating farm equipment, according to the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The cause of the farming equipment crash which led to Yapp's death is still unknown.

The incident is under investigation, according to the ministry.

Yapp had been travelling to work on farms in Canada for 35 years, and he’s held in high regard by his employer, the VanBerlo family, according to the Jamaican ministry.

"The VanBerlo's did not lose an employee. They lost a person they considered a member of their family. Their relationship with Garvin was forged over 34 years of employment at their family farm. Accordingly, they are devastated by his death,” according to a statement from the VanBerlos’ lawyer, reported CTV News.

Migrant workers like Yapp need to receive full and permanent immigration status, according to Hussan.

“We do not know if his family will receive any compensation.”

He said that these workers’ conditions are so bad that “people are literally dying for your food”.

In an open letter to Jamaica’s Ministry of Labour sent out a week before Yapp’s death, Hussan explained how bad the housing for these workers is.

“Most migrant farm workers are living in employer controlled housing, which is basically stables or warehouses where people are living in bunk beds, climbing on top of each other to sleep, even in COVID,” said Hussan. “[The workers] don’t have privacy, have community, have friends visit, have their families live with them. This housing is about warehousing people and in this way humans are being indignified and turned into machines, rather than being treated like complete people.”

“As it currently stands, the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program is systemic slavery.”

Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in British Columbia experienced many types of abuse perpetrated by employers and their agents, according to a report from the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) released in March.

In May 2021, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change questioned the safety of migrant workers while in quarantine following the death of at least five migrant farmworkers.

“Four of the five workers died in quarantine and the federal government and Prime Minister Trudeau are responsible for the quarantine period,” according to a statement signed by 14 Base Groups, representing 115 workers, of the migrant workers’ group.

Also, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 25 per cent of the total death count because of COVID-19 were attributed to immigrants, according to a previous report. Also, migrant farm workers who come to Ontario from other countries are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and other diseases. This is due to their communal living and working conditions, according to a previous report.

In December 2021, the federal government announced it is looking to further improve safety measures for temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector. The statement came after an Auditor General report noted that inspections at living spaces and workplaces conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) have been problematic. In particular, 88 per cent of quarantine inspections in late 2020 were deemed "problematic", up from 73 per cent the previous year.

In June, Scotlynn Farms, based in Vittoria, Ont., became the first employer to be prosecuted for a COVID-19 related death under the province’s occupational health and safety laws. The farm pleaded guilty to the COVID-19 death of one of its workers and was ordered to pay a fine of $125,000 and an additional $31,250 for court costs.