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Migrant workers need more protection during the pandemic, say advocates

About 20,000 workers come to Ontario every year to work in the fields, greenhouses


May 7, 2020
By Shawn Jeffords/The Canadian Press

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Photo: Getty Images

Advocates for temporary foreign workers in Ontario’s agriculture sector say the provincial government should do more to protect them during the pandemic, which has seen COVID-19 outbreaks at several farms.

Chris Ramsaroop with the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers wrote Premier Doug Ford and the province’s pandemic command table asking them to increase farm inspections, including of migrant workers’ cramped living quarters, and bolster cleaning practices.

He said the recent outbreaks highlight how vulnerable migrant workers, many of whom come from Mexico, the Caribbean and Guatemala, are during the pandemic.

“We’ve been raising issues around housing and working conditions for a very long time now,” he said.

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“The government has abdicated its responsibility for protecting the interests of vulnerable workers.”

Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to the Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses.

Cases of COVID-19 infections have been reported at four separate farms in Chatham-Kent and Windsor-Essex.

A total of 51 workers — both local and foreign — tested positive to the novel coronavirus at Greenhill Produce, in Kent Bridge, Ont., last month. None are in hospital and the local health unit says two have recovered from the illness.

Cramped living quarters

Ramsaroop said the cramped “bunkhouses” — barrack-style housing which sees multiple workers sharing bedrooms, kitchen space and washrooms — contribute to the problem.

His group is also calling on all employers to use local hotels, student residences or other similar spaces to help workers practice physical distancing.

“Throughout this growing season, we have to look at facilities where workers have individual spaces,” he said. “Spaces where they can protect themselves from the pandemic.”

Greenhill Produce did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but last week it issued a statement saying that it was complying with all local health unit orders to protect workers while on the job and in their living quarters.

“In terms of bunkhouse conditions, we are proud to provide some of the best quality living quarters for our workers, meeting and greatly exceeding federal government regulations,” a farm spokesman said in a statement.

Support from health unit

The Chatham-Kent Health Unit said the municipality has increased its supports for temporary foreign workers across the community.

“We have been working with Greenhill Produce since day one to ensure that the proper public health measures are in place,” spokeswoman Caress Lee Carpenter said in a statement. “Public health officials have inspected and approved all bunkhouses as per our routine process.”

Premier Doug Ford’s office did not immediately provide comment, but the province’s Labour Ministry said it had inspected Greenhill Produce and its investigation has completed.

In Windsor-Essex, the local health unit said Thursday that 16 workers from three farms in that municipality have tested positive for COVID-19.

In March, four workers tested positive for the virus at Highline Mushrooms in Kingsville, Ont., and the farm’s CEO said his staff worked quickly to quarantine the infected workers and protect the others at the facility.

PPE, barriers

They were provided with personal protective equipment, physical barriers were installed, and more shifts were created so fewer workers were at the facility at a time.

That farm already used over 40 homes to house workers in the community prior to the pandemic, and not bunkhouses, so they could limit contact, he said.

“We’ve also ensured that nobody would lose any wages if they were sick and having to quarantine or just being off work for medical reasons to disincentivize people from coming to work if they weren’t feeling well,” he said.

But Hamer said the transition to the increased safety measures has been costly and he thinks all levels of government should help the farmers.

“The government has been very good about identifying that there is a risk to the food supply chain, and there’s a big risk at agricultural companies,” he said. “But there’s been very little that they’ve done about it. So the entirety of the response has largely fallen on the companies to implement themselves.”

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the medical officer of health with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, said the agency has a designated department to work with the sector to protect the region’s temporary foreign workers, which he said was considered a “high risk” population.

The public health agency inspects the 179 farms and at least 780 seasonal housing units locally each year.

The communal living arrangements are a concern and while some farms have been able to address that by sending workers to hotels or other spaces, it’s not been an option for everyone, Ahmed said.

Post-pandemic discussions

Post-pandemic discussions will need to be had to review accommodations for temporary foreign workers, he said.

“We’re talking about anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people and finding alternate accommodations, during the middle of this pandemic may not be an easy task,” he said.

Gabriel Allahdua, a former migrant worker turned advocate, said it’s important that governments keep close watch on the farms during the pandemic because workers are often afraid to speak up and lose their job.

Their crowded housing conditions are a danger to the workers, he added.

“That is a recipe for COVID to spread like wildfire,” he said.