The Hamilton Spectator
Group fighting outbreaks among migrant workers
Experts launch website recommending practices to protect labourers
As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University professor Janet McLaughlin knew it was just a matter of time before migrant farm workers would be hit by the coronavirus.
She and other colleagues, who all take an interest in migrants’ health and well-being, raised alarms with federal and provincial officials about the prevention of potential outbreaks in workers’ cramped bunkers.
“I’ve been working in this field for 16 years. I knew these workers would be more vulnerable to the virus due to structural factors and occupational hazards with their close living and working proximity,” said McLaughlin, who teaches health studies.
“(Once) someone had it, it’s going to spread like wildfire — and we’ve seen that happen.”
To date, there are at least three major outbreaks in Ontario — Greenhill Produce in Kent Bridge, Ontario Plants Propagation in St. Thomas and Scotlynn Group in Norfolk County — with more than 280 confirmed COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers.
Two Mexican workers — Bonifacio
Eugenio Romero, 32, and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, 24 — are dead, with at least two others hospitalized in intensive care.
McLaughlin and other infection control and occupational health experts have now taken the cause into their own hands by forming the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group.
This week, the volunteer group launched a website to help government officials, farm operators and front-line health professionals protect this workforce, which is crucial to Canada’s food supply chain. The website highlights important information workers need to safeguard themselves.
“Bonifacio’s and Rogelio’s deaths were avoidable,” said Jenna Hennebry, co-founder of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University and a co-ordinator of the expert working group.
“We ask that federal and provincial agencies, and public health units, address the larger barriers faced by this population. We have been diligently sharing and developing recommendations for government agencies, liaising with public health units, and we are growing impatient.”
The new website recommends best practices designed specifically for farm workers, who are often isolated in rural and remote areas, have trouble accessing health support due to a lack of information and language barriers and find it impossible to keep a social distance working in the fields and living in their tight lodgings.
It also has a Q&A section to provide workers with information in both English and Spanish about COVID-19, health care, employment standards, social isolation and labour rights. While government officials have provided guidelines to farm operators such as the requirement to social distance workers and isolate infected individuals, they don’t offer support on how to do it.
“They are not told what to do when workers get sick and are left to do it on their own. Farmers are motivated to get crops planted. They are not experts in health safety and COVID,” said Hennebry.
“The virus has exploited that situation. It grows and thrives in that reality of the migrant worker program.”
Susana Caxaj, a University of Western Ontario nursing professor, said many of the workers’ health and safety challenges predate the pandemic but are now being exacerbated. “What we do know is old news. We know that Bonifacio and Rogelio were two of tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers who make it so we have food on our tables here in Canada,” Caxaj said.
“These young men represent the struggles of so many workers who face extreme isolation, discrimination, language barriers and crowded and poorly regulated working and living conditions that represent real health hazards to workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.”
Migrants often fall through the cracks because the whole foreign workers’ program is a patchwork, with different federal and provincial departments and agencies sharing responsibilities of enforcing standards and providing support.
“They need to stop passing the buck back and forth to the detriment of these workers,” Caxaj said.
While many of the recommendations on the website address the immediate needs to keep migrant workers safe, McLaughlin said the foreign worker program needs an overhaul to balance the power between workers and employers.
Currently, a seasonal agricultural worker can only work for the farm owner who brings the person here and can be repatriated back to their home country at any time.
A so-called “open work permit” that allows the worker to work for any employer in the agricultural sector would make them less vulnerable, she said.