New foreign worker rules worry farmers

The proposed housing rules are a reaction to COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers in Ontario this year and media reports of crowded, unsanitary conditions at fruit and vegetable farms. | File photo

Farmers who employ temporary foreign workers may soon have to provide housing with air conditioning, says a new federal government document.

The paper, Proposed Minimum Accommodation Requirements for Primary Agriculture, is part of a government consultation seeking input on housing rules for temporary foreign workers.

Employment minister Carla Qualtrough and agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau launched the consultations in October and interested parties have until Dec. 22 to comment.

The proposed housing rules are a reaction to COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers in Ontario this year and media reports of crowded, unsanitary conditions at fruit and vegetable farms.

“The intent is not to pursue short-term changes for the 2021 season or to address the current pandemic, but to develop a lasting approach to improve living conditions for workers,” the consultation paper says.

This summer, the federal government committed $58 million to enhance inspections of farms that employ TFW and to improve health and safety on farms.

“During the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19, we want to help farmers adapt and improve the employment conditions of all their employees, as well as the living environment of temporary foreign workers,” Bibeau said in July.

The proposed housing regulations would create national standards for housing temporary foreign workers, replacing provincial rules that vary across the country.

The new housing regulations, if enacted, will affect beekeepers in Western Canada, who rely heavily on foreign workers from Central America, Mexico and the Philippines.

Most commercial beekeepers employ four, eight or 20 temporary foreign workers.

The proposed regulations include general rules such as a maximum of four workers per room and sufficient furniture for the number of people living there.

But other requirements are highly specific:

  • One shower for every four workers with “an adjacent dressing cubicle with curtains, a hinged seat on the wall or a bench seat and two double clothes hooks.”
  • Central air or room air conditioning to maintain a specified temperature range .

Mike Grysiuk, a beekeeper from La Salle, Man., said the requirement for air conditioning is absurd.

He employs foreign workers from Nicaragua, a country with blistering hot weather in December. His workers live in an apartment while in Manitoba.

“These guys are coming from the Central America, Mexico … the Philippines. They don’t have air conditioning,” Grysiuk said.

“Not everybody in Canada has air conditioning…. That’s an amenity.”

In Manitoba, landlords are not required to provide air conditioning to tenants. If tenants wanted to install a window air conditioning unit, they would have to pay for it.

“Manitoba Housing doesn’t provide air-conditioned suites for people on (social assistance),” Grysiuk said.

Another beekeeper said his foreign workers often turn up the heat because they frequently feel cold during a Canadian summer.

The air conditioning expectation and the detailed housing rules are frustrating for beekeepers, who call it a case of the federal government reacting to a few “bad apple” farmers and cracking down on all producers.

“These things they are trying to impose are things that are not really necessary for our industry because (the workers) are never in bunk housing. There’s never 50 to 100 employees in one building,” said Canadian Honey Council executive director Rod Scarlett, who is preparing a written comment on the regulations.

“Every washroom has to have a bench in it…. In my house, I don’t have a bench in my washroom.”

The sweeping rules don’t make sense because every situation is different, said Grysiuk, who chairs the Manitoba Beekeepers Association’s labour committee.

Some beekeepers and farmers live in towns where housing is available. Others are in remote areas with few housing options.

“Somebody is sitting in an ivory tower, thinking everything is the same. It’s not.”

The idea that housing is a major problem and that farmers exploit foreign workers is difficult for beekeepers to swallow. If conditions are terrible why do the workers come back, year after year?

Some of Grysiuk’s employees from Nicaragua have been with him for 15 years.

“When our guys first came here, they had no power and dirt floors where they came from,” said Grysiuk. “These guys now, they built their own homes. They’ve got tile floors, they’ve got power.”

Jeremy Olthof, president of the Alberta Beekeepers Commission, has taken steps to improve the housing for temporary foreign workers on his apiary near Red Deer. This fall, he brought in three trailers used to house workers at petroleum industry camps.

“That didn’t come cheap, though. Not every beekeeper is going to be able to do that.”

The proposed housing rules are concerning, but Olthof is more worried about getting foreign workers to Canada next year during a pandemic.

Normally, he hires about eight workers but last spring only six made it to Canada. Other beekeepers had similar problems, which cut into the number of hives and honey production in 2020.

“The labour committees (at beekeeping associations) are working hard because there were some definite hiccups last year.”

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