Migrant Rights Network – Food & Farmworkers Working Group
Canada, June 10, 2021 — Migrant Rights Network (MRN) is releasing a report comprising testimonies, surveys, photographs and demands for change in housing from 453 migrant farmworkers across Canada. The report is the only collective contribution of migrant farmworkers to the Federal government’s consultations on national housing standards, and paints a stark picture of abject housing conditions and mistreatment. The report also puts forward migrant worker demands for basic human rights that must be at the core of any national housing standards, and yet are shockingly absent from the government’s proposals: privacy, space, quality of life, family unity and worker control.
The report was created in response to the federal government’s proposed “Mandatory Requirements for Employer-Provided Accommodations“, and calls on the government to “create enforceable national standards for dignified housing for all migrants in employer controlled homes (including migrant care workers) immediately, and ensure full and permanent immigration status for all migrant and undocumented people.” The Mandatory Requirements for Employer-Provided Accommodations were proposed in November 2020 but have not been implemented yet. Read the report here.
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).
Migrant support organization No one is illegal – Halifax /Kjipuktuk, one of the members of MRN’s Food & Farmworkers Working Group, has been engaged in advocacy, education, as well as direct support with migrant workers throughout Nova Scotia.
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Highlights from the report
WORKER CONCERNS ABOUT EXISTING HOUSING:
The following issues were highlighted as top priorities of concern by a majority of workers: Lack of privacy; overcrowding in bedrooms and shared spaces; not enough toilets, showers, or stoves for the number of workers using them; appliances and amenities in poor condition (including broken toilets, substandard & uncomfortable beds); lack of clean drinking water; pest infestations; lack of heating and cooling; distance from communities to access health services, social supports, groceries, remittances; and excessive employer control over workers’ lives and fear of reprisals.
Statements from workers about existing housing conditions:
“We are all humans but some employers treat us like objects, once you don’t serve them they change you for another one. So many years of work and at the end they do not say even thank you, after working for them almost all our life. We have no indoor bathroom. We have to use a portable toilet outside or pee in a bottle. No internet or television. No dryer or washing machine. We are living in conditions of modern day slavery. We want decent houses, not stables. It feels worse than if we were in prison. We want our children with us because we miss them terribly. ”
“The toilet doesn’t have a door, only a curtain so when somebody is showering you can’t use the toilet. Right now we sleep in a big hallway with 20 guys in bunk beds. No privacy. No dryer so we can’t dry our clothes when it rains.”
“53 to 60 people share living space. We sleep on bunk beds. And a curtain separates us. All 60 of us use the bathroom and kitchen.”
WORKER PRIORITIES FOR DECENT HOUSING:
(1) Privacy: Over half (51%) of the respondents identified privacy as the priority for decent housing. Migrant farmworkers see this as a matter of basic human dignity. Being warehoused with many others or crowded together in small houses makes it impossible for workers to take care of their physical and mental health and well-being.
“I think the right thing is to live in a house, not a trailer as we’re living now. The space is too small because there are many people living here and we’re very far from the village to buy things; there’s no privacy in the bedrooms, we’re very close together and the bunk beds are in poor state and we can’t rest well. Also to be able to have visitors and leave freely, which is prohibited. Hopefully one day the government might allow us to have our family with us; it would be like a dream.”
(2) Space: Nearly half the respondents (43.43%) highlighted space as their key priority. Workers want communal as well as private space, both indoor and outdoor, where they can relax during their spare time, watch TV, play sports, host guests, socialise and grow food. They want storage space for their personal belongings. They need separate change rooms to be able to keep dirty work clothes away from living spaces for cooking and resting. This is especially important from a health and safety perspective to ensure pesticides aren’t entering houses. Many workers spoke specifically about the impacts of crowding on their mental health, and the need for no more than 1 or 2 people per bathroom and kitchen.
“I would like to have a separate space to spend time with my housemates and receive visitors, a refrigerator for two people, an individual bedroom with individual furniture to store clothes, bedrooms that are decently separated, general supervision of the house and issues, setting up rules to be followed in terms of cleanliness and the physical condition of the house and healthy coexistence. And when there is abuse or other problems, the employer should facilitate the dialogue with workers using translators, reaching fair solutions for everyone to avoid some workers overpowering others. To clarify, we’re not asking for luxuries in the house, but merely a decent space where we can have an 8-month work stay with respect and dignity. Special attention should be given to the bedroom.”
(3) Quality of life: Nearly one in three workers (28.1%) identified quality of life needs as key priorities. They want their housing to include laundry, kitchen, shower and bathroom facilities under one roof so they don’t have to travel large distances between them. They want to have clean drinking water, hot water for showers, heating in winter, and cooling in the summer. They want furniture and basic amenities (such as blenders, coffee makers, etc) to be in good condition, and have access to phones and free internet. They want less social isolation: workers want their homes away from their workplaces and employers’ homes, and closer to grocery stores, remittance services and health facilities. This includes accessible transportation. Many workers commute by bicycle, on treacherous rural roads without proper traffic infrastructure, and accidents are common.
“I think the government should consider the sacrifices we made and contributions to the country leaving our families at home, I think they should make sure we are well taken care of while here working, we shouldn’t be cram in tight spaces and force to work in dangerous conditions, and to be victimized for standing up for our rights, we as farm workers should feel home while we are here and not like we are in prison.”
(4) Family unity: More than one in four (26.28%) workers said they want their families here with them. Many migrant workers spend 8 months of the year in Canada, others spend 2 or more years at a time. Migrant workers want homes where their families can live with them, but the majority said they don’t want their families living in conditions like their current housing. Demands for family are demands for full and permanent immigration status.
“It is very important that we feel good where we live because i believe that after work, the housing is the next most important aspect because we can be very good workers but where we live is very important and in many cases the majority of complaints are about the housing, I believe that the conditions are so bad that when people ask to transfer is because of the housing conditions. I would love to have a cooked warm meal. The dream would be to have a place with my wife and kids waiting for me, they are my motor and my motivation to be 100% at work, sometimes we receive a phone call from back home and we have to keep working while we are worried, but if we are given the opportunity of reuniting with my family that would be my dream if i have a choice.”
(5) Worker Control: A quarter of respondents (25%) noted worker control and autonomy as a key priority. Migrant workers want the freedom to choose when to be alone or in social spaces; to be quiet or loud; when to cook and where to eat; to live without employer surveillance or control over their movement or visitors; to choose when to eat or shower without having to negotiate with others. Migrant workers want the freedom to make choices in their housing, not live under the current institutionalized conditions. This means worker consultation must be central to establishing housing guidelines.
“I would like to have a room to receive visitors, since currently we’re not allowed to have visits in the house; less interference of the employer in the house, because he decides who can come in.”