COVID-19 exposes injustices faced by migrant workers

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Migrant workers in 2013. Image: Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

The pandemic is definitely revealing the deficiencies in Canadian society.

Whether it be in the private, for-profit long-term care homes across the country, the meat-processing industry, or in the greenhouses and fields where migrant labourers toil, the lack of oversight, regulations, and, in some cases, sheer lack of humanity, are increasingly evident.

The plight of migrant workers -- the working and living conditions, the low pay -- is not new (as noted in this May 2018 rabble column) but it has been making headlines once again. The pandemic is making long-standing concerns even more critical.

The stories being told of substandard housing, overcrowding in bunkhouses, sick workers not receiving medical care, workers being forced to work during quarantine, quarantine pay not being received by workers, and more, are shocking.

Not all farms are a problem, and not all farm workers are affected. But enough are that the statistics on illness and deaths among migrant workers due to COVID-19 are raising alarm bells.

Ontario relies on between 20,000 and 25,000 migrant workers for its farming industry and those workers account for between 30 and 40 per cent of all agricultural workers in the province. In 2018, more than 54,000 foreign agricultural workers came to Canada, about 20 per cent of all agricultural workers.

For more than 50 years, foreign agricultural workers have been coming to Canada in the hopes of saving money to send home to family in Mexico and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Often these workers have remained silent about working conditions for fear they will lose their jobs and consequently be deported. But over the last several years, some of these workers have begun to self-organize and share more information about their situation.

In March, the federal government was urged to consider foreign agricultural workers as essential to food production and to open the borders for their entry. The decision was to allow these agricultural workers into the country as long as they quarantined for 14 days.

Now, with COVID-19, bad working conditions, fear of illness and death, lack of payments during quarantine, and other issues aggravated by the pandemic have meant more workers are calling information hotlines.

In early April, an outbreak was reported among temporary foreign workers in a nursery in Kelowna, B.C. Since mid-April in Ontario, there have been hundreds of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers in Chatham-Kent, Windsor-Essex, and Haldimand-Norfolk counties.

In April, 47 staff (mostly temporary foreign workers) employed by Greenhill Produce, a large greenhouse operation in Chatham-Kent in southern Ontario, tested positive for COVID-19. These workers had been in the country at least four months prior to testing positive.

Then in mid-May, COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex County spiked when another 35 cases were confirmed among migrant workers employed at different facilities.

On May 30, Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, a 31-year old migrant worker from central Mexico, became the first foreign agricultural worker to die in Ontario from COVID-19. Eugenio-Romero had been in the country since early April and worked for Woodside Greenhouses Inc. in Kingsville, Ontario.

On June 5, a second worker, 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos, who also worked on a farm in Windsor-Essex, died. And, as I was preparing this column, another death was announced. On June 20, 55-year-old father of four, Juan López Chaparro died in the ICU at University Hospital in London, Ontario. He had been working at Scotlynn farm in Norfolk County and ill since early May.

In an effort to track and reduce the outbreak of cases in southwestern Ontario, a testing centre was set up and opened on June 9. The centre was prepared to test close to 8,000 migrant workers employed in southern Ontario, but by June 17, it had tested little more than 750 workers and was planning on closing for lack of participation.

Yet by that same date, an estimated 350 cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers had been confirmed, with local health officials actively working to stem the outbreak.

On June 8, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a coalition of 28 national and local organizations that support migrant workers, released a report which details the conditions some of these workers are facing.

"Unheeded Warnings: Covid-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada" also includes several recommendations for change. The research for this report is based largely on information from Ontario migrant workers who reached out to the MWAC hotline for help during this pandemic between March 15 and May 15.

"Unheeded Warnings" also provides details of the very large corporate farms where many of the outbreaks have occurred and how, in this industrialized model of agriculture, profit is being prioritized over human rights and health.

The report notes for example that one of Ontario's largest farm operations, the Scotlynn Group, where an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in late May, generates over $73.88 million in annual sales, and ships 70 per cent of its sweet corn and pumpkin crop to the United States.

According to the MWAC report, some of these corporate farms are setting aside public health concerns such as quarantine and isolation rules, social distancing in the fields and in housing, not respecting contractual obligations such as to provide health care cards, and more. In other cases, seasonal workers continue to work even though they might be ill for fear of losing their jobs or much-needed income.

As early as March, the Migrant Workers Alliance has been writing letters to the federal government regarding quarantine and safety protocols on farms, as well as income supports for farm workers unable to work.

In the case of COVID-19, the over-arching threat of being deported has been enough to keep many workers silent and risking their health and that of their co-workers.

Meanwhile, with nine farms in active outbreak near Windsor, Ontario, and more than 340 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers in that area, Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador temporarily stopped about 5,000 Mexican migrant workers from coming to Canada, requesting more information on the recent deaths.

In the last few days, workers have resumed travel to Canada after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Mexican president agreed to increased inspections, safety protocols, as well as more support for Mexican officials and workers to identify and report unsafe working conditions.

Hopefully it will mean that seasonal workers' health will be prioritized going forward -- and that the rest of us will begin assessing our industrialized model of growing fresh vegetables.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

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