Advocates call for accessible COVID-19 vaccine plan for Ontario migrant farm workers

Advocates are raising concerns about temporary migrant workers not having timely access to information about Ontario's plan to offer them COVID-19 vaccines.

The letter says some workers didn't receive a consent form

Advocates for migrant worker health say the workers need consent forms and, in some cases, information in other languages. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Advocates are raising concerns about temporary migrant workers not having timely access to information about Ontario's plan to offer them COVID-19 vaccines.

A recent letter from a group of medical experts and community service providers outlined some of the issues raised by temporary workers involved in early vaccination efforts, including both lack of notice and opportunities to discuss the process with health professionals.

Some workers did not receive a consent form, the letter said, and others were told their decision about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine could affect their future employment.

"The power imbalance between employers and migrant workers in Ontario agriculture presents unique challenges to obtaining informed consent," the group said.

The letter from the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group was sent to public health units covering major farming communities in Ontario.

Among the group's recommendations was including access to consultation with a health professional, advanced notice, language assistance and guaranteed freedom from reprisal.

Stephanie Mayell, a group member and health researcher who helped draft the recommendations, said there must be time built in to ensure workers receive culturally sensitive and accessible information.

"That's something that seems obvious, but it's really difficult, I think, for public health units to think about everything," she said. "In this case, that's something that's really, really needed."

3 migrant workers with virus died last year

Some 20,000 temporary foreign workers are employed on Ontario farms each year. More than 1,780 workers tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020 and three died from the virus.

The mass outbreaks on farms prompted some health units to start offering COVID-19 vaccines to temporary workers ahead of the provincial schedule.

In Niagara Region, a pilot project administered 316 shots to workers in late March, with plans to ramp up vaccinations this week.

A statement from the health unit said the local COVID-19 vaccination task force "has prioritized this sector for shots based on the local risk and the pressure it places on local health and public health services."

The unit said it aims to vaccinate 3,000 workers in the coming months after learning lessons from the pilot.

340 vaccinated in Haldimand and Norfolk

In Haldimand and Norfolk, 340 farm workers had received a dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday and 260 more were scheduled to be vaccinated by the end of the week.

Health units in Windsor-Essex County and Lambton County said they were still developing plans to vaccinate migrant workers.

Ontario has now entered the second phase of its vaccine rollout, which prioritizes temporary migrant workers because they live in congregate settings considered high-risk for COVID-19 spread, and cannot work from home.

Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group Now said it is in contact with public health units with large agricultural sectors to ensure proper communication is in place.

Eduardo Huesca, with Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, said he's been making informational videos and drafting vaccine fact sheets. He said the materials have been translated into the temporary workers' native languages and distributed over the past week.

Vaccines at the airport

A spokesman for the provincial minister of agriculture said the ministry is "exploring all options to ensure that temporary foreign workers have access to the vaccines," and discussing methods for providing access with the federal government.

Advocates have also expressed concern about a proposed Ontario government plan to offer vaccines to temporary workers on arrival at the airport. They say workers could face communication issues due to language barriers.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province's associate medical officer of health, said on Tuesday that the airport pilot project could start as early as this week.

Mayell said the plan was a "terrible idea," noting that it does not give people a chance to discuss their health concerns with a medical professional, or consider whether the vaccine being offered is available in their home country when the time comes for a second dose.

"All of those opportunities for informed consent and information dissemination are lost when you queue people in the airport," Mayell said.