Little action has been taken to improve the living conditions for migrant workers two weeks after a video surfaced showing 12 workers housed in a room with beds separated by thin sheets during the pandemic.
The video was released by advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers and depicts a bunkhouse in Windsor-Essex run by agricultural giant Double Diamond Farms, which is a current partner of Aphria Inc. (TSX: APHA).
Migrant workers approached the advocacy organization with concerns for their personal safety and to raise awareness around their working and living conditions during the pandemic, J4MW organizer Chris Ramsaroop said. So far in Canada the novel coronavirus has killed three migrant workers and sickened close to 1,000, CBC reported.
For everyone who was wondering about where this video was taken, today @j4mw released the name and location of the company: Double Diamond in Kingsville, Ontario. But the group also revealed that there's a lot more to the story. 1/5 https://t.co/UNlWMVLWt7
— Shane Martínez (@martinezdefence) June 18, 2020
Ramsaroop says unsafe conditions like those shown in the video aren’t new for the agricultural industry.
“I think the pandemic is showing what the reality is,” Ramsaroop said. “More people are waking up and seeing what realities migrant workers are facing under the current system.”
The problem is that the agricultural industry has been allowed to put profits over people since 1966, criminal lawyer Shane Martínez said. Martínez’s law firm is partnered with J4MW.
This has crated a system where seasonal agricultural workers are: unable to unionize or collectively bargain; pay into employment insurance but are unable to collect it during the off season; and have clauses in their contracts that allows employers to repatriate employees for any reason, such as getting sick or complaining about unsafe working conditions, Martínez said.
And while the pandemic has sent governments scrambling to improve public safety, Martínez says migrant workers have slipped through the cracks thanks to a system that largely polices itself.
That’s not to say the government has no control over what happens to migrant workers. Workplaces and bunkhouses are subject to random inspections and companies are required to follow health orders given by provincial and federal health officers — but government inspectors often lack the “teeth” needed to meaningfully reprimand companies caught abusing their workers, Martínez said.
During the pandemic federal and provincial funding have been invested in improving agricultural worker safety. On May 5, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government was creating a $77.5 million fund to help the agricultural industry invest in personal protective equipment and adapt to new health and safety protocols. On May 14, the province of Ontario invested $2.25 million to similarly help farmers buy PPE for their employees and improve employee health and safety.
The government will be obligated to act and inspect Double Diamond’s bunkhouses now that the video has been shared, but that’s unlikely to elicit any effective change, Martínez said.
That’s why J4MW is calling on all levels of government to create additional protection for migrant and agricultural workers, Ramsaroop says.
“The industry is constructed to erase racialized workers so the contributions of black and brown workers are constructed to be forgotten or not to be seen as important. We’re told the narrative of the producers but not that of the workers,” he said.
J4MW is also petitioning Aphria to offer retroactive hazard pay dating back to the start of the pandemic for its greenhouse workers.
The cannabis company has been criticized for its partnership with Double Diamond, especially after Aphria’s CEO Irwin Simon published a statement June 10 saying he and his company stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We want to be thoughtful and purposeful with our actions to help eradicate racism… We will not conduct business with those who are not compliant,” wrote Simon. “The company and myself strongly believe in helping change behaviours and in supporting the organizations that are taking action and making a real difference in our country and beyond.”
Aphria did not respond to multiple requests for an interview to comment on the apparent contradiction of its words versus its actions.
Double Diamond was also contacted for an interview but a company spokesperson would only say the video was fake and that the company would never offer its workers hazard pay. When asked what PPE Double Diamond offered its employees, the spokesperson hung up the phone.
Ramsaroop and Martínez say they both verified the video was real.
“They know it’s not fake. Perhaps they’d like to show a video of what the actual bunkhouse is, if they’re claiming that it’s fake,” Martínez said.
Top image of a migrant worker near New York City by by David Shankbone. Image via Wikimedia Commons