The systems intended to safeguard temporary foreign workers working in Canada’s agricultural sector have “provided little assurance of protection” for their health or safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditor general says.
In a report issued Thursday, Auditor General Karen Hogan said her office examined inspections done by the department responsible for assessing the protections for temporary foreign workers beginning in April 2020, just one month into the official declaration of a pandemic.
“By the end of that year, we had identified significant problems in the department’s performance with respect to its own inspection policies and processes,” the report states.
“For example, we found that the department assessed almost all employers as compliant with the COVID-19 requirements set out in the amended Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, despite having gathered little or no evidence to demonstrate this.”
“These findings speak to a systemic problem,” said Hogan in a press conference on Thursday afternoon, urging “immediate” action by the government to crack down and fix the process.
“It is long past time to fix the situation for temporary foreign workers who come to Canada.”
Canada’s agricultural sector relies on the labour of temporary foreign workers.
Employment and Social Development Canada is the federal department tasked with inspecting and monitoring their working conditions. But auditors said despite flagging the department to “shortcomings” in its inspections in December 2020 and February 2021, nothing was done.
“The department committed to improving its inspections for the next wave of temporary foreign workers coming for the 2021 season. Given these significant problems, we extended our audit period into the 2021 season,” said the auditors.
“We found that the quality and rigour of inspections worsened.”
A particular area of concern was around whether the workers were able to quarantine if they were exposed to or contracted COVID-19, given many live in group accommodations.
As well, auditors noted that in 2020 the department deemed nearly all of the employers it inspected as compliant with COVID-19 regulations, “even though most quarantine inspections that we reviewed had little or no evidence to support that assessment.”
“In some cases, we found evidence that employers might not be following the rules. In those cases, there was no evidence that the department challenged or followed up with employers,” the audit reported. “However, the department still found the employers compliant.”
All in, the auditors reported problems in roughly 73 per cent of the quarantine inspections they assessed during the course of the review.
The concerns raised in the report come nearly three months after the Ontario Minister of Labour filed 20 charges against a southwestern Ontario farm and its owner in connection with an outbreak of COVID-19 among hundreds of people working there in spring 2020.
Juan López Chaparro, a 55-year-old father and migrant worker at the farm, died after contracting the virus. He had been coming to Canada from Mexico for work since 2010.
In the filing of the charges, the ministry claimed that the farm and its owner failed “to take every precaution reasonable” to protect its workers, including measures like using masks, barriers and physical distancing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford last year urged farm owners to take the risk of COVID-19 seriously, warning those who did not would face consequences.
Hogan noted it was “impossible” for auditors to establish a causal link between the sicknesses and deaths of temporary foreign workers to COVID-19 based on the poor inspections.
She said it is clear problems remain throughout the entire inspection process.
“We asked ourselves the question about, why did this happen?” Hogan said on Thursday when asked why the reports of problems flagged by auditors to the department did not seem to have led to changes in how inspections were being done.
“The sense of urgency really didn’t resonate throughout the inspection regime.”
What will the government do now?
The Migrant Workers Alliance said the report confirmed their concerns about the way temporary foreign workers are being treated, and called for the workers to be given permanent resident status.
The problems highlighted in the report, the advocacy group said, are caused by a system where temporary foreign workers have no power to assert any rights to safe working conditions and frequently face exploitation and abuse as a result.
Conservative employment critic Stephanie Kusie called the findings “simply unacceptable.”
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the government had tried to strengthen the conditions in place for temporary foreign workers but that the report showed not enough has been done.
She said the government accepts the recommendations of the report and is working to rebuild the compliance regime for the temporary foreign worker program, and added that she has asked her deputy minister to provide additional training to inspectors no later than March 2022.
As well, Qualtrough said the deputy minister is being directed to put new guidelines in place so that action can be taken within 24 hours if a worker’s health and safety is at risk, to tackle inspection backlogs, and improve the quality of the inspection files with targets set for March and September 2022.