Labour Media release

Press release: Over 30 groups and unions in Nova Scotia call for action on migrant worker rights

Photo: Banner reading “McNeil: Protect Migrant Worker Health & Safety” hangs in front of the Premier’s Office (Submitted)

Halifax/K’jipuktuk (August 5, 2020) – Today, 32 organizations and unions in Nova Scotia issued an open letter to Premier Stephen McNeil and his cabinet calling for action to protect the health and safety of migrant workers in the province. The letter also echoes nationwide calls for the federal government to grant permanent residence status for all migrants. 

Their letter comes on the heels of reports of migrant workers on a strawberry farm in Nova Scotia being unlawfully prohibited from leaving the property. On Friday, reports also surfaced of migrant worker abuse at Balamore Farms in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Their letter makes reference to other reports of migrant worker abuse, including 89 complaints made by Mexican migrant workers for wage theft, as well as inadequate and cramped housing conditions on Nova Scotia farms dating back to 2009. 

“These are not isolated incidents. We have also received alarming reports of other migrant workers being unlawfully prevented from leaving farms, which infringes on their civil liberties. We know that due to the risk of being fired, deported and barred from the program, it’s a difficult decision for migrant workers to speak out about the abuse they face, so these are likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said Stacey Gomez, an organizer with No One is Illegal – Halifax/K’jipuktuk, one of the signatories to the letter. 

Each year, approximately 2,000 migrant workers arrive in Nova Scotia to plant, harvest, and process agricultural crops and seafood products through Temporary Foreign Worker Programs (TFWPs) such as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 migrant workers come to Canada to work in agricultural, food and fish processing each year.

This year, migrant workers have been hard-hit by COVID-19 throughout the country with reported cases in British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick. In Nova Scotia, a migrant worker tested positive for COVID-19 on July 2, 2020. 

“Already migrant workers face greater health risks, even before COVID-19. They are compelled to work with dangerous pesticides, often without proper safety equipment, and work with very little rest and under relentless pressure. The high stress and dangerous work compromises physical and mental health, making migrant workers more vulnerable to illness and injury,” said Asaf Rashid, board member of the Halifax Workers Action Centre, one of the signatories to the letter. 

The open letter contains 17 demands for the provincial government, including for migrant workers to have access to public healthcare, an end to the practice of unlawfully preventing them from leaving farms, proactive inspections, protection against retaliation, and the ability to refuse unsafe work. 

“What it boils down to is that we’re calling for migrant workers to have the same benefits, rights and freedoms as other workers, at a minimum. McNeil has been silent long enough,” added Ms. Gomez.

In addition, an excerpt of the letter reads:“”Temporary” migration status means that [migrants workers] are placed in a vulnerable situation and they are less able to exercise rights than other workers. For this reason, we are calling on the federal government for immediate permanent residence status for all migrants, including migrant workers.”

These recommendations are drawn from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change report entitled Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada, which is based on accounts from over 1000 migrant workers, including 80 from Nova Scotia. 

Over 30 signatories have signed onto the letter including unions, educational institutions, faith groups and social justice organizations throughout the province. Signatories include Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council, Dalhousie Legal Aid Services, African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, and the YWCA – Halifax.