ALBERTA, Canada — A local migrant workers’ rights group here is urging the Government of Jamaica to do all in its power to ensure that its Canadian counterpart takes full responsibility for the welfare of seasonal farm workers who have been allowed into Canada, despite restrictions on travel and people movement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) said more care should have been taken in opening the flow of workers, as policies aimed at their protection in Canada are generally lacking in good times and their shortcomings would therefore be more glaring in light of the pandemic.
“Under normal conditions we have concerns. Under a pandemic we have more concerns,” J4MW organiser Chris Ramsaroop told the Jamaica Observer.
“If Canada wants them to come…Canada should be held to account. The… Jamaicans are on their own. There’s no special protection put in place. They [Canadians] will allege and claim [that there are policies in place], but they don’t work well,” Ramsaroop argued, while describing the situation as “dangerous”.
Jamaica’s labour ministry said the workers had all agreed to, and signed the Instrument of Release and Discharge document before their departure. The document, the ministry said, outlined the risks involved. This idemnifies the Jamaican Government against any liability.
The call from the rights group comes amidst an outbreak of the virus involving mostly Mexican migrant workers on a farm in British Columbia, western Canada.
Seasonal farm workers are among “essential” groups exempted from the restrictions as borders remain largely closed to slow the spread of the fast-moving novel coronavirus. The move is aimed at boosting Canada’s food security amidst fears that a prolonged crisis could lead to a crippling of supplies and lockdown of some industries.
Last week it emerged that the workers involved had signed waivers relieving the Jamaican Government of any liability in case of sickness or death as a result of the virus, which began in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year, and by late Tuesday had surpassed 1.9 million cases globally. More than 125,000 lives have since been taken by the deadly virus, even as a full understanding of its human-to-human transmission remains a work in progress for scientists and health practitioners.
Up until yesterday, the United States remained the epicentre of the virus with more than 600,000 cases and more than 25,000 deaths. The densely populated state of New York – which borders Canada – is the hardest hit, accounting for more than 200,000 cases in the US and over 10,000 deaths.
Canada, up to Tuesday, had recorded 26,897 cases and 898 deaths. But Canada’s handling of the pandemic – which includes early preparation, swift restrictions on people movement, widespread testing and financial help for people and industries affected by the lockdown – has been largely hailed by onlookers. As at Monday, Canada had carried out 422,200 tests.
In an April 1 joint letter to employers of seasonal workers, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Carla Qualtrough, minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, stated that all seasonal workers would be subjected to a 14-day, self-isolation period on their entry into Canada, but made it clear that their employment period would include those 14 days and as such they should be paid. Workers who breach the order, which is imposed under the Quarantine Act, could be subjected to fines of up to CDN$1,000,000.
Only yesterday, the federal government announced a CDN$50-million aid package for farmers, fish harvesters, and all food production and processing employers to “put in place the measures necessary to follow the mandatory 14-day isolation period required of all workers arriving from abroad”.
As part of the measures, the federal government is providing support of “[CDN]$1,500 – for each temporary foreign worker – to employers or those working with them to ensure requirements are fully met”.
In the meantime, the 2020 contract for the employment in Canada of Commonwealth Caribbean seasonal agricultural workers stipulates that employers must take workers “to obtain health coverage in a timely manner”, in accordance with provincial and territorial guidelines.
Among other conditions, the employers are also bound “to obtain insurance acceptable to the government agent to provide compensation to workers for personal injuries received or disease contracted as a result of the employment, that complies with all laws, regulations, and by-laws respecting conditions set by competent authority and, in addition, in the absence of any laws providing for payment of such compensation to the worker”.
But Ramsaroop argued that though measures are in place, reality sometimes has a different spin as Jamaican and other seasonal farm workers who get sick in Canada are at times forced to go back to their homelands. And with the Jamaican borders closed, their welfare would be left hanging.
“If they get sick they will try to send them home, and the pandemic and this crisis will hurt them more. We have to show compassion and solidarity for migrant workers,” he said.
“Canada is addressing it’s food security by creating insecurity for these workers,” he said, noting that Canadian workers who operate in the same space are not subjected to the restrictions on movement and could expose Jamaicans to the potentially deadly virus.
Ramsaroop, meanwhile, said as far as the financial aid that should trickle down to the workers is concerned, he was not convinced that they will receive it since there is no accountability.
There has been no official word from Jamaica’s Ministry of Labour as to how many farm workers are involved, and messages to an official at the ministry for confirmation of the chartered flights have been met with silence. The J4MW organiser, meanwhile, told the Observer that his information is that two to three hundred workers have been arriving in Canada on chartered flights every other day since April 1.
He said a few of the affected workers have already reached out to him for support in the case of any eventualities, and that a number of them have expressed confusion as to what the waivers they signed entailed. He said he has not been able to confirm the information as the documents remain with Jamaica’s labour ministry.
“It doesn’t seem like some understand what they signed, or they signed and don’t have copies of it. I can’t confirm that yet. I am still awaiting confirmation [as to the contents of the document],” he shared.
He said given the fact that the workers are already here, the Jamaican Government should use its diplomatic and other channels to ensure the Canadian Government offers full protection for the workers.
“We are talking about breadwinners here, and we want to ensure that they provide for their family. This is their main source of income, but we want them to be treated with respect. We want to ensure that they come here with rights and protection,” Ramsaroop said. “Canada will say that there are mechanisms in place, but they don’t work. We should use this crisis as an opportunity to provide better for our farm workers.”
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