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Southwestern Ontario COVID-19 outbreak puts migrant farm workers in spotlight

Southwestern Ontario COVID-19 outbreak puts migrant farm workers in spotlight
Canada
With Southwestern Ontario hit by its first COVID-19 outbreak among the thousands of offshore farm workers it relies on, the head of the province’s largest agricultural group says it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus erupted in the farm belt.

But in the fallout of the outbreak on a Chatham-area greenhouse operation, with dozens of foreign workers infected, activists say governments need to do better to protect such labourers from the virus.

“For the past couple weeks, we’ve been trying to sound the alarm about the spread of pandemics on farms,” said Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers, an umbrella group that advocates for foreign labourers.

“This is something that was preventable,” Ramsaroop said Monday.

The temporary workers, especially prevalent in the vegetable and fruit industries in Southwestern Ontario, handle jobs many Ontarians won’t do and often live in bunkhouses on the farms.

That communal housing — monitored by the federal government, with input from local bylaw and provincial and public health authorities on standards — often means “crammed and confined conditions,” said Ramsaroop.

But with the pandemic raising exposure concerns when many people live under the same roof, Ramsaroop is calling for increased inspections and regulation of such housing and greater access to personal protective equipment for farm workers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Even with safeguards, it was inevitable that Ontario would see a COVID-19 outbreak on a farm, said Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“We’ve been saying all along, it’s not a case of if we have an outbreak on a farm operation, it’s when. Was it bound to happen? Yes. I wish it didn’t,” he said.

“(But) it’s no different than people who work in a grocery store, hospital or old-age home. There’s (physical) distancing, but because of the nature of the work, there is a risk,” he said.

The outbreak at Greenhill Produce in Kent Bridge is the first known major case of coronavirus on an Ontario farm. By Monday, 43 employees there — all but a handful migrant workers — had tested positive. The first 11 workers confirmed as infected live in two of seven company residences.

The outbreak comes at the start of the growing season that normally brings about 20,000 offshore workers to Ontario, many of them to the southwest. About 7,000 such workers are already here, 20 per cent fewer than usual, with another 8,000 expected under tough quarantine restrictions imposed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currie said lodgings for the workers were closely monitored even before the pandemic hit. “There are very strict rules with respect to the bunkhouses,” he said.

The federal immigration minister wasn’t available for comment Monday, but has said lodgings for offshore workers brought to Canada must be more stringently monitored to ensure COVID-19 physical distancing.

Calling the federal temporary worker program “an absolute top priority,” Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino told the Windsor Star “this program has to work” to help maintain food security.

Providing temporary foreign workers with permanent resident status would help protect them and encourage them to speak up about unsafe work, said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, another advocacy group.

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Since their work permits are often tied to their employer, Hussan said, many workers fear deportation if they voice safety concerns. “This is just going to keep happening until and unless we have substantive changes.”

Canada normally relies on about 60,000 foreign workers in agriculture each year, but still about 15,000 jobs remain vacant, the federal government says.
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