Baltimore Sun

Virus crops up at farms in Canada

In­fected mi­grant work­ers pro­duce a na­tional out­cry

- By Cather­ine Porter Canada News · Vegetables · Healthy Food · Healthy Living · Ontario · Mexico · United States of America · Politics of Mexico · Justin Trudeau · Hamilton, Canada · Toronto · Mexico City · Florida · Georgia · McMaster University

SIM­COE, On­tario — Three weeks af­ter they be­gan cut­ting as­para­gus in the thaw­ing fields, Luis Gabriel Flores Flores no­ticed that one of his co-work­ers was miss­ing. He said he found the man shiv­er­ing with a fever, in bed — where he would re­main for a week.

“I was try­ing to tell the fore­men, ‘He is very ill, he needs a doc­tor,’ ” said Flores, one of thou­sands of mi­grant farm­work­ers flown into On­tario in April to se­cure Canada’s food sup­ply. “They said, ‘Sure, soon, later.’ They never did.”

The sprawl­ing veg­etable farm where he worked be­came the site of one of the coun­try’s l argest coro­n­avirus out­breaks. Al­most 200 work­ers, all from Mex­ico, tested pos­i­tive, seven were hos­pi­tal­ized and one died: Juan Lopez Cha­parro, the one Flores said he had tried in vain to help.

The farm owner in­sisted that Cha­parro had been treated promptly and called Flores a “bad ap­ple” be­ing used by ac­tivists to score po­lit­i­cal points. If that is the case, it has worked: The out­break and oth­ers like it have spurred na­tional protests about the sys­temic vul­ner­a­bil­ity of mi­grant farm la­bor­ers, a pop­u­la­tion un­known to many Cana­di­ans un­til they be­gan to fall ill at a rate 11 times that of health work­ers.

Cana­di­ans pride them­selves on a liberal im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem wel­com­ing to an ar­ray of eth­nic­i­ties and na­tion­al­i­ties, con­trast­ing their at­ti­tude with what many see as xeno­pho­bia in their neigh­bor to the south. The re­al­ity does not al­ways match the rhetoric, but Canada en­cour­ages dif­fer­ent groups to main­tain their cul­tures, and an em­brace of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is en­shrined in Canada’s char­ter and self-im­age.

But in im­port­ing large num­bers of sea­sonal farm la­bor­ers from abroad and of­fer­ing them no path to res­i­dence or cit­i­zen­ship, Canada looks un-Cana­dian to many of its peo­ple. Canada ad­mits tem­po­rary work­ers who stay for most of a year but re­quires them to re­turn home when their con­tracts end. (The United States does, as well, but they are out­num­bered by farm­work­ers who are un­doc­u­mented.)

As in the United States, f arm­work­ers l i ve f or months on their em­ploy­ers’ prop­erty, often in large bunkhouses where dis­ease can spread eas­ily. Those who en­ter Canada with work per­mits often re­turn year af­ter year with no prospect of ever legally putting down roots. Canada, at least, guar­an­tees them health care, but on iso­lated farms, gain­ing ac­cess to that care can be dif­fi­cult.

The coro­n­avirus out­breaks prompted the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment to pause send­ing work­ers to Canada for a week in June. In re­sponse, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau said: “We should al­ways take ad­van­tage of mo­ments of cri­sis to reflect. Can we change the sys­tem to do bet­ter?”

Since then, his gov­ern­ment has an­nounced about $45 mil­lion for im­proved farm hous­ing, san­i­ta­tion and in­spec­tions.

But it has not of­fered the cure that ad­vo­cates for mi­grant work­ers de­mand: a path to cit­i­zen­ship.

“We have a group of peo­ple de­fined as good enough to work in Canada, but not good enough to stay,” said Vic Satzewich, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Mc­Mas­ter Univer­sity in Hamil­ton, On­tario. “As a coun­try we have to ask our­selves why that’s the case.”

In the­ory, mi­grant farm­work­ers are pro­tected by all the laws that shield Cana­dian farm­work­ers. But their con­tracts state that any worker fired for cause re­quires “im­me­di­ate re­moval” from the coun­try, which keeps peo­ple from com­plain­ing about abuses, ad­vo­cates say.

The gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced an en­force­ment sys

tem in 2015, with a com­plaint line for mi­grant work­ers, but Canada’s au­di­tor gen­eral called it in­ad­e­quate: Only 13 of 173 planned in­spec­tions were com­pleted in the 2016 fis­cal year.

This year, no farms have been found non­com­pli­ant.

“The em­ploy­ers have too much power over their work­ers,” said Flores, 36, at a protest by mi­grant work­ers and their sup­port­ers in down­town Toronto in Au­gust. Around him, masked men and women held up pic­tures of Cha­parro, his de­ceased co-worker.

“It could have hap­pened to any of us,” said Flores, a fa­ther of two from the out­skirts of Mex­ico City, who has worked on farms across Canada in four of the past

six years.

This year, the pro­gram placed him at Scot­lynn Sweet­pac Grow­ers, a fam­i­lyrun agribusi­ness with a large truck­ing fleet and 12,000 acres in On­tario, Florida and Ge­or­gia.

He tested pos­i­tive for the virus, but ex­pe­ri­enced only mild symp­toms. The day af­ter he learned of Cha­parro’s death, he left the farm two hours south­west of Toronto.

He has been sup­ported since then by the ad­vo­cacy group Mi­grant Work­ers Al­liance For Change, which helped him file a com­plaint with the pro­vin­cial la­bor board, seek­ing nearly $30,500 from Scot­lynn for lost wages and suf­fer­ing.

He con­tends that he was

fired for assert­ing pub­licly that the com­pany had a role in Cha­parro’s death.

The farm’s owner, Scott Bid­dle, said his fam­ily had hired farm­work­ers from Mex­ico for over 30 years and never fired a sin­gle one. He said Flores was one of three work­ers who asked to be re­turned to Mex­ico af­ter the out­break be­gan.

Bid­dle said his farm had strictly fol­lowed the district’s coro­n­avirus reg­u­la­tions, putting al­most all the work­ers up in ho­tel rooms for two rounds of quar­an­tine. He called Cha­parro’s death an un­for­tu­nate re­flec­tion of the dis­ease’s va­garies, not of sys­temic fail­ures.

“Ev­ery reg­u­la­tion was fol­lowed that needed to be,” he said.

 ?? BRETT GUNDLOCK/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? A mi­grant farm­worker has his tem­per­a­ture checked Sept. 5 at Schuyler Farms in Sim­coe, On­tario. Out­breaks have hit a num­ber of Cana­dian farms.
BRETT GUNDLOCK/THE NEW YORK TIMES A mi­grant farm­worker has his tem­per­a­ture checked Sept. 5 at Schuyler Farms in Sim­coe, On­tario. Out­breaks have hit a num­ber of Cana­dian farms.

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