Ontario farms must reroute ‘human flow’ around COVID-19-positive workers, says expert
|Toronto Star 25 Jun 2020 at 17:56|
Ontario’s move to allow COVID-19 -positive but asymptomatic migrant workers on farms in the Windsor-Essex area to stay on the job amid heightened testing and safety protocols will force employers to get creative in keeping workers safe, says the senior manager of immigration services at BDO Canada.
“It’s a question of managing the human flow,” Doreen Buksner told the Star on Thursday, suggesting that the majority of farm employers “are doing the right thing and are following protocols” in part because it is in their best interest to do so.
Buksner, whose company provides consulting and other business services, said the nature of migrant farm work, which can see harvesters working side by side in fields and living together in bunkhouses, presents challenges that demand innovative responses, including finding new bubble areas such as trailers to isolate infected workers.
“Enforcement may be a next step,” she said, “if the area can’t get to a point within a reasonable amount of time where employers and employers can deal with issues of physical space and after giving them a chance to rectify the situation.
“This is where people can get creative. It may not be an ideal situation, but we must find some accommodations,” she said. If people follow the rules and “really start to pick up their bootstraps,” the farm communities could join Windsor-Essex in reopening their economies in a matter of weeks.
But she said the number of cases in Kingsville and Leamington in Essex County — 32 new COVID-19 cases were reported Tuesday, 30 of them on agri-farms — means it’s still too early to reopen the southwestern Ontario communities.
After hundreds in Windsor-Essex this week protested the fact that the region was the only one in the province still in Stage 1 of the government’s reopening plan, due to farm outbreaks in Essex County, the government of Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday let most of the area move into Stage 2 as of Thursday. The reopening excludes Leamington and Kingsville, which have seen large numbers of transmission among local agriculture and agri-food sector workers.
The Ontario plan allows workers with COVID-19 but without symptoms to continue working throughout Windsor-Essex and at Essex County farms according to safety protocols. Ontario is expanding on-site farm testing and offering assurances that no one with a positive test will lose their job — and that those who must self-isolate will be eligible for workplace safety and insurance benefits. Workers who test positive for COVID-19 and who have a Social Insurance Number may also be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
Local mobile teams are being deployed daily for health check assessments at farms and the province is working with employers to schedule more mobile testing, with Ford telling a local radio station that employers “are co-operating. We’re going into the farms and we’re testing now.” The premier said the government’s plan “will give farmers the support they need to protect essential workers and ensure they can keep putting food safely on our tables.”
But an advocacy coalition for migrant workers says the Windsor-Essex move gives employers a green light to coerce infected workers to stay on the job.
“Workers will be forced to keep working as they get sicker, keep infecting others, and more will die,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
The group wants is calling for a reversal of the decision letting coronavirus-positive migrants continue farm work, and it wants stop-work orders to be issued in farms with positive cases, while guaranteeing full income for those who are employed by the farms which are closed, or who have infections beyond 21 paid sick days.
“We have all seen the photos and videos: people working inches away from each other, workers separated by cardboard partitions, living in trailers without sinks and using porta-potties 10 or 20 at a time,” Hussan said after Ontario this week marked the third death of a foreign farm worker in the province due to the virus.
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“Would the premier force his children to work if they tested positive for COVID-19?” asked Sonia Aviles of Migrant Workers Alliance — Niagara in a statement.
“This is anomalous — the government would never order other people to work after testing positive. This shows a complete disregard of migrant workers’ health and safety and how dehumanized migrants workers are.”