In wake of report on migrant workers' complaints, 'evidence needed' to crack down on abusers
If migrant workers on Niagara farms are being exploited, denied their rights or treated improperly, Erwin Wiens wants to hear from them.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake farmer and town councillor has been a vocal advocate for the region's farmers and seasonal workers, but says he is “disappointed and disheartened” after a report by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change outlined a series of anonymous complaints and problems based mainly on conversations with workers.
“I don't want to see people mistreated, especially people who are considered vulnerable,” said Wiens.
“Trust me, I've taken on a lot of people. I'll take on the farmer next door if I have to,” Wiens, a former police officer, said in an interview.
Farmers have a vested interest in their workers being healthy, happy and productive, he said. They are skilled workers who do a tough job and “they are not disposable,” he said.
But if some “bad actors” are abusing that relationship, Wiens would like to know about it.
“I would have a huge following of farmers behind me because farmers want this to succeed. We want this (migrant worker) system to work. This has been working for 50 years and we want to make it better. We want to make it consistent, we want to make sure that everybody's happy with it,” he said.
He urged workers to come forward with details and evidence, anonymously if necessary, to any of the various government agencies or migrant worker liaison represntatives, “but at least with specific allegations on this date this occurrence or this house or, or we're not getting paid.”
He also said he would welcome hearing from workers directly. “If there's anybody not following the rules, any farmers, I would want them out of the system.”
“Like everybody else, we want people to be treated fairly, but the only way you could do that is having some facts to back it up,” he said.
The report, “Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada,” alleges violations occurred at farms across Ontario, including Niagara..
From phone conversations with workers between March 15 and May 15, the report outlines a wide-ranging series of complaints, including mandatory quarantine wages not paid or clawed back, overcrowded and inadequate housing, racism issues and being forced to work long hours for weeks with no days off.
Most of the farms, specific communities or individual complainants are unnamed, making it difficult to investigate or do anything to prevent problems, Wiens said.
The report says workers are anonymous because many fear retaliation from employers, losing their jobs or not being rehired next year. The alliance also calls the federal government to give all migrant workers permanent resident status as soon as they arrive in Canada. Most of the workers are from the Caribbean and Mexico.
While he acknowledges there can be crowding issues on farms, Wiens said the picture painted by the report is unfair, because without detailed specifics it's impossible for people like him or government agencies to act.
To say that workers are not getting paid, or they don't at least receive minimum wage or benefits or medical plans “is patently untrue,” Wiens argued.
“As far as I know, and I have no evidence to the contrary, and nobody has brought up any evidence, everybody's been paid. And I do know that the CRA and the Jamaican liaison, and integrity commissioner falls up on all the pay sheets.”
He suggested the alliance's goal is to improve the working environment for the people who toil in the fields, which is what farmers' representatives and government agencies also want.
Rather than have an adversarial relationship, he said he'd rather see the allliance working with the various other agencies.
“Why not come alongside, why not work with these organizations?”