Farmers, advocates and government officials pushed to change the law in the 1990s
The federal government failed to ensure that farms protected their workers from human trafficking, according to the federal auditors.
But in the wake of the findings, Canadian officials now say some agreements are already protecting migrant workers.
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Following a two-year study by a joint task force between Immigration Canada and the labour department, the federal auditor general, Michael Ferguson, released a report on Friday into immigration and security programs for migrant workers.
In it, he outlined some of the failures in implementing the Humanitarian Workers Protection Agreement that was signed between the two departments in the 1990s.
The agreement, originally signed in the 1980s, aimed to protect workers on Canadian farms and farm workers in the field. It set out a minimum of two weeks of paid vacation per year, and limits on lengthy working hours, nine-hour shifts, and being locked in a barn or outside without access to water and shade. It also bans traffickers and people who are forced to work for them from crossing the border.
Last year, the Immigration department gave amnesty to 17,000 workers who had been convicted under the agreement.
In the 1980s, farm workers like Dimitar Karavelo were smuggled into Canada, then were transferred between farms. A report on International Human Rights released in 1992 found that many of them suffered from abuses and “deprived of their freedom to work, to travel, to leave the farm” as a result of their escape.
Canadian regulators, aided by aid groups, followed up on this call. They enlisted the help of human rights activists, NGOs, unions, and non-government organizations to help them identify and investigate suspected cases of trafficking.
In 2008, 27,900 migrant workers agreed to a lower protection level under the original agreement, allowing them to be flown to the border and enter Canada without a sponsor.
Today, it’s unclear if farmers have complied with federal and provincial requirements for certifying farms as covered by the agreement.
According to the auditor general’s report, “No comprehensive effort has been made to inspect the farms that implement the agreement to ensure the protection requirements are being followed.”
Despite this, she notes, a “number of farm owners have voluntarily agreed to strengthen [their] system of protection.”
In response to the report, the Immigration department said it is working to strengthen monitoring of farms and migratory programmes.
The government also intends to improve information sharing, ensure its human trafficking victims can report more easily, and create a risk management system.
In a statement, the Department of Labour said it agrees the agency could have done more to address this issue.
“We want to work with the Government of Canada to strengthen the system of protection and provide more protections to Canada’s agricultural workers,” a spokesperson for the department wrote.
The Attorney General said it would continue to work with the Labor Department and the Federal Court to develop more legal protections.
“There are the same international standards for all countries. No country can hide in the shadows,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.