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Migrant workers’ rights still on backburner in Nova Scotia

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A few weeks ago, Premier Stephen McNeil made headlines when he apologized to Black and Indigenous people for systemic racism in Nova Scotia’s justice system. 

A comprehensive approach to systemic racism must go beyond the justice system. One must, as well, take action to protect the health and safety of migrant workers in the province. So far, McNeil and his cabinet have dragged their feet on this issue. 

In his apology, NcNeil said: “I want you to know I hear you, I see you, I believe you …” To date, however, the premier and his cabinet have displayed a lack of willingness to hear and see migrant workers. 

Each year, 2,000 migrant workers come to Nova Scotia from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia to plant, harvest and process fruits, vegetables and seafood. As a racialized and “temporary” labour force, they routinely endure working and living conditions simply not permissible for other workers. 

Shavan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of those workers. He’s a father of three from Jamaica who’s been coming to Nova Scotia as a migrant farm worker for eight years. This past year, his bunkhouse was overrun with large rats. He says, “I know that’s not part of Canada’s standards.” Even during the heatwave over the summer, Shavan and other migrant workers were working 10-hour days in the blistering sun for minimum wage. 

He states: “It’s modern-day slavery. You have some people who look down on us as Black people working on the farm and don’t even remember that the food that they are eating came from our hand. Because all of the apples picked in the Annapolis Valley are picked by Black people: Jamaicans. White people won’t do it because it’s hard work.”

On Aug. 5, over 36 organizations and unions across Nova Scotia sent an open letter to McNeil highlighting the systemic inequalities faced by migrant workers. The letter included 17 demands to the Nova Scotia government aimed at levelling the playing field for migrant workers, including access to public health care, an end to the practice of unlawfully preventing them from leaving farms, proactive inspections, protection against retaliation, and enabling them to exercise the right to refuse unsafe work. 

To date, McNeil has not responded to the open letter, nor to our requests for a meeting. 

The response we did receive from then Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis on Sept. 9 disregards the systemic inequalities faced by migrant workers and makes no commitments to improve their occupational health and safety. 

In his letter, Kousoulis states that migrant workers, “have the same protections under the province’s employment standards and safety legislation” as other workers. Shavan says: “That’s how it should be. We need action, not only talk.” 

In practice, migrant workers like Shavan face significant barriers to exercise basic worker rights. Their “temporary” migration status makes them vulnerable to abuse. Speaking out carries with it the risk of being fired, returned to their home country and barred from the program in the future. In addition, migrant workers face language barriers, inaccessibility of complaints procedures and a system skewed in favour of the employer. 

Workers who lodged a complaint against Balamore Farm, reported on by the Nova Scotia Advocate, say that when the government agent came to do an inspection, a supervisor on the farm was able to hand-pick the workers interviewed and threatened them against speaking out about their conditions. 

Kousoulis claims that the government responds to complaints proactively, including unannounced visits to worksites, but he provides no evidence of this. 

As such, we’ve written to request additional information on the points he’s raised. Shavan, for one, says: “We haven’t seen any inspector … Personally, I haven’t and I never heard anyone say they’ve seen an inspector.”

Kousoulis ends his letter by thanking us for our “continued efforts to support others who may not always have a voice.” 

To the contrary, migrant workers like Shavan are speaking out despite the risks, and demanding change. 

As we brace for the second wave of COVID-19, urgent action is needed at the provincial and federal levels to end the systemic racism faced by migrant workers.

On Oct. 23, it was announced that Nova Scotia farmers employing migrant workers will be eligible to receive subsidies for COVID-19-related safety measures through a federal funding package unveiled in the summer. This funding doesn’t address the causes of migrant worker vulnerability.

We urge incoming Labour Minister Lena Metlege Diab and Premier Stephen McNeil to adopt the recommendations highlighted in the open letter, and to meet with us.

We also continue to echo calls for full and permanent immigration status for all migrants. As part of the cross-Canada Day of Action for Status for All, we invite you to a screening of the groundbreaking documentary El Contrato, followed by a Q & A discussion on Monday, Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m. in Halifax. The event will take place at St. George’s Round Church Hall (2221 Maitland St). We hope to see you there. 

Stacey Gomez is a migrant justice organizer with No One is Illegal – Halifax/K’jipuktuk. Asaf Rashid is a board member of the Halifax Workers Action Centre. Jessica Tellez is a member of the Halifax Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Wanda Thomas, a proponent for reparations, is vice-chair of the Global Afrikan Congress- N.S. Chapter and advocates for justice for migrant workers. They are members of the Migrant Worker Rights Working Group and their organizations are signatories to the open letter sent to the McNeil government on Aug. 5.

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