Vaccines now offered to temporary foreign workers at Montreal airport, as outbreaks on the rise

Montreal

Advocates have decried how difficult it can be for temporary foreign workers to get vaccines, despite cramped living spaces and workplaces that make it hard to prevent transmission of the virus.

Temporary foreign workers pick strawberries at a farm in Mirabel, north of Montreal.(Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

After months of calls from advocates for better vaccination access, temporary foreign workers can now get a COVID-19 vaccine dose when they arrive at the Montreal-Trudeau International Airport.

The first flight of workers from Guatemala to receive the vaccines as part of the initiative arrived Tuesday.

Of the 180 workers on the chartered flight, 95 per cent took the offered dose, according to Michel Pilon, the co-ordinator of the (RATTMAQ), a group that helps migrant workers in agriculture.

At least 500 more workers are expected to arrive by Friday, Pilon said, though the bulk of temporary foreign workers working in Quebec's agricultural sector arrived in March and April.

"It's too bad because if this had happened sooner, a lot more people would have been vaccinated," Pilon said over the phone from the airport.

Advocates have decried how difficult it can be for temporary foreign workers to get vaccines, despite cramped living spaces and workplaces that make it easy for the virus to spread.

Health boards said no to mobile clinics

Many work long hours in areas far from mass vaccination centres. Pilon said he and other groups advocating for migrant workers repeatedly asked for mobile vaccination to be offered at workplaces but regional health boards decided against it.

This week, Quebec's public health institute, the INSPQ, reported a rise in workplace outbreaks among temporary foreign workers. Currently, there are 86 temporary foreign workers in six regions who are sick, compared to 21 on May 22.

Monday, a Radio-Canada investigation revealed substandard living conditions for workers at Tomates Demers, a tomato farm in Drummondville.

Thick mould covers walls in some of the rooms and bathrooms and the living spaces are so tightly packed, several workers must sleep in bunk beds.

"We're living one on top of the other," one worker told Radio-Canada.

Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault decried the conditions, calling them "unacceptable," but said it was up to the federal government to enforce or improve regulations overseeing temporary foreign worker programs.

Noëlle Didierjean, a spokesperson for the Immigrant Workers Centre based in Montreal, says the Quebec government should have done more to ensure workers' safety during the pandemic.

"There weren't pop-up clinics and workers weren't offered compensation for getting the vaccine, and weren't able to take time for the side effects," Didierjean said.

"Sure, they're getting vaccinated and that's great, but they're still living in hyper crowded spaces where it's impossible to socially distance."

Living conditions worse during pandemic

Pilon said many agricultural employers have used pandemic restrictions as an excuse to take more control over workers' movements, in some cases forbidding them from leaving the property on their day off.

"Demers is far from being an isolated case," Pilon said, adding an increasing number of workers are forced to work seven days a week, despite Quebec's labour law stipulating that a person must have at least 32 consecutive hours of rest per week.

"I've seen paychecks with 80, 92 — up to 104 hours in a week," Pilon said. "It is unacceptable. We are burning these people out."

Pilon and others members of RATTMAQ installed a booth at the Trudeau airport last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, to inform temporary foreign workers of their rights.

A Radio-Canada team revealed poor living conditions for temporary foreign workers at a tomato farm in Drummondville.(Natacha Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

Quebec is relying more on labour from temporary foreign workers than in the past. A total of 20,000 are expected to arrive in 2021, 16,000 of whom will work in agriculture. Most of the workers come from Mexico and Guatemala. Those numbers have doubled since 2015.

Most of those workers are housed by their employers. Neither the Quebec nor Canadian government sets a limit on the number of workers who can live in one room. The INSPQ has asked that there be at least nine square meters of space per two people in a room.

The minimum amount of space between beds imposed by the federal government is 45 centimetres. There must be one toilet and one shower for every 10 workers and one fridge for every six workers, according to federal law.

Fernando Borja, the director of FERME, an organization that helps farms in Quebec hire foreign workers, says polls conducted by the Mexican government found most workers were satisfied with their living conditions in the province.

He believes the provincial government's testing and quarantining protocol in place for when workers arrive has been effective. Workers are obliged to show proof of a negative test conducted shortly before their departure, as well as receive another COVID-19 test once they arrive at the airport and a third, eight days into their isolation.

More than one worker can isolate in one room.

"I think it helps a lot," Borja said. "My understanding is that very few are positive upon arrival."

"We still have a lot of workers coming in the month of June, so we're happy to see the vaccination getting done."

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