Toronto Star

Farm faces charges over virus protocols

Facility where almost 200 fell ill first to see pandemic prosecutio­n under workplace laws

- SARA MOJTEHEDZA­DEH

In a pandemic first, the southern Ontario farm where a massive COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a migrant worker and sickened scores more is facing prosecutio­n for a raft of alleged workplace safety violations.

Scotlynn Growers and proprietor Scott

Biddle are charged with 20 offences that allegedly occurred last year, when about 200 migrant workers tested positive for the virus.

Among them was 55-year-old Juan Lopez Chaparro, who died from COVID-19 following the Scotlynn outbreak in June 2020. He left behind four children in Mexico, as well as his widow, who says there are “no words” to describe losing him.

“Juan was a tremendous person as a friend, brother, husband and father,” his wife, Agustina Galindo Segundo, told the Star from Mexico in an emailed response to questions.

“He never tried to cause trouble and would always do his best to help others,” she said.

“We have tried to move forward because he would not have wanted us to fall apart. But since he left us, everything has changed in our family.”

Scotlynn’s alleged violations include failing to isolate workers with COVID symptoms, failing to follow masking and disinfecti­on protocols, and failing to provide adequate informatio­n and training, according to the list of charges obtained by the Star.

It is the first COVID-related prosecutio­n of an employer under occupation­al health and safety laws, labour ministry spokespers­on Kalem McSween confirmed.

Biddle, who is charged with 11 counts of alleged workplace safety violations as a “director and/or officer” of the farm, said he was currently working from Scotlynn’s U.S. office and was not aware of the matter.

“I have no comment,” he said Monday.

In an interview with the Star last year, not long after the outbreak and Chaparro’s death, Biddle said his Norfolk County farm assiduousl­y followed outbreak protocols including providing adequate personal protective equipment and housing.

“These guys, they’re front-line workers, they’re out there working in the fields, providing food for all of us in Canada, and putting their lives at risk. I mean, it’s very unfortunat­e what happened to us,” Biddle said at the time.

Critics say migrant workers were particular­ly vulnerable because of long-standing inequities — and inaction. Without systemic change, including permanent immigratio­n status, workers “will continue to get sick and injured, face threats of deportatio­n and lose their lives,” said Karen Cocq of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Chaparro, who was from just outside Mexico City, spent several weeks in a southweste­rn Ontario hospital battling the virus. He died not long after celebratin­g his 26th wedding anniversar­y. After his death, his bunkmate Gabriel Flores Flores was terminated for raising health and safety concerns about the outbreak at Scotlynn, leading him to flee the farm with the help of a friend, according to a recent labour board ruling. The labour board found the farm’s actions constitute­d a reprisal, and Scotlynn was ordered to pay damages and lost wages to Flores.

Flores said he was happy the new charges would shed light on the circumstan­ces surroundin­g Chaparro’s death — including the alleged lack of timely medical attention, poor living conditions, and the way workers were treated.

But more action is needed, Flores said.

“The most important change would be to give workers full

“The most important change would be to give workers full (immigratio­n) status immediatel­y. That is the only way we will be able to leave bad jobs and demand the respect and equality we deserve.”

GABRIEL FLORES FLORES

MIGRANT WORKER, FORMER EMPLOYEE AT SCOTLYNN GROWERS

(immigratio­n) status immediatel­y. That is the only way we will be able to leave bad jobs and demand the respect and equality we deserve.”

Court records show the health and safety charges laid this month date back to alleged offences that occurred between May to August last year, around the time of Scotlynn’s outbreak.

In addition to the alleged failure to isolate symptomati­c workers and follow masking protocols, the farm “failed to take the reasonable precaution of providing workers in the fields with reasonable access to hand hygiene facilities” or hand sanitizer, the charges claim.

A second set of charges against Scotlynn and Biddle claim lapses also occurred in October — several months after Chaparro’s death. In those charges, Scotlynn and Biddle are accused of keeping parts of the business open contrary to lockdown regulation­s, as well as allegedly again failing to provide workers with masks when required.

When factoring in the second set of charges, Scotlynn and Biddle face 27 counts of breaking the Occupation­al Health and Safety Act and the Reopening of Ontario Act. The matters are currently before provincial offences court, a Norfolk County spokespers­on said.

Prosecutio­ns under provincial workplace safety laws typically take several months to initiate. Individual­s can face up to a year of jail time and a $100,000 fine, while corporatio­ns face a maximum penalty of up to $1.5 million per charge.

Maximum fines under pandemic emergency laws range up to $100,000 for individual­s, with possible jail time, and $10 million for a corporatio­n.

Scotlynn, a multimilli­on-dollar operation, describes itself as “North America’s Farm Stand” and also runs a transporta­tion company with networks throughout the United States.

It is not the first time reports of poor living and working conditions have surfaced at the farm. As previously revealed by the Star, Mexican authoritie­s received 33 complaints about Scotlynn from migrant workers between 2016 and 2018 — the most made about any one Canadian farm during that period. The complaints included allegation­s of pest infestatio­ns, overcrowdi­ng, and failure to receive timely medical attention.

Separately, Scotlynn was fined $7,000 by the federal government this year for legal violations related to “hiring and recruiting employees,” according to a public database of noncomplia­nt employers of temporary foreign workers.

Meanwhile, Cocq said Scotlynn has “continued to generate millions in profit off the backs of migrant workers.”

“This proves that the system cannot work, because the laws it enforces deny migrants the power to assert their rights because of their temporary immigratio­n status,” she said.

Chaparro was one of three migrant workers who died of COVID-19 last year, after massive farm outbreaks swept the province. In total, over 2,500 farm workers in Ontario have fallen ill with COVID-19, according to workers’ compensati­on statistics. This year, at least five migrant workers have died in quarantine.

“It’s time this new government does what the last government never did — give full and permanent immigratio­n status to all migrants to ensure equal rights for the people that have sustained our communitie­s during the pandemic,” Cocq said.

This year, the Ministry of Labour launched a proactive health and safety inspection blitz on Ontario farms; inspectors have made 380 field visits in the agricultur­al services sector and 414 visits to farms, spokespers­on McSween said.

While nothing can replace Chaparro, his wife said, the family has “tried to follow his example and do our best to survive and keep going.”

But the pain, his wife said, is enduring.

“When you lose a loved one without the chance to say goodbye, it will hurt forever.”

 ?? RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Gabriel Flores Flores was terminated for raising health and safety concerns, according to a recent labour board ruling.
RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Gabriel Flores Flores was terminated for raising health and safety concerns, according to a recent labour board ruling.

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