Haldimand-Norfolk farmers and health unit battle over migrant worker bunkhouse order

Haldimand-Norfolk's board of health will meet Friday for the second time in a week to deal with blow-back from a public health order that says migrant workers in quarantine are limited to three per bunkhouse.

'We've got to grow food and keep people safe ... That's what we're trying to do,' farmer says

Lawyers are involved in a Haldimand-Norfolk battle over an order that says only three workers can stay in a bunkhouse during the quarantine period, regardless of floor space. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Haldimand-Norfolk's board of health will meet Friday for the second time this week to deal with blow-back from a public health order limiting quarantined migrant farm workers to three per bunkhouse.

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the area's medical officer of health, issued a section 22 order in March saying the some 4,000 workers who arrive from other countries must quarantine for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The order also restricts workers to three per bunkhouse, regardless of floor space. The other workers quarantine in hotel rooms, which farmers have paid for with some federal government support.

A group of Norfolk farmers, led by Simcoe-area farmer Brett Schuyler, says the number seems arbitrary. Schuyler appealed the issue to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board, which last week ruled with the farmers. Now the health unit is appealing that decision, saying it doesn't have the resources to evaluate individual bunkhouses. In the meantime, the order stays.

Migrant worker advocacy groups applaud the appeal, while Haldimand and many local farmers oppose it.

Silhouette of a person picking a plant from the ground.
Migrant worker advocacy groups say the order should stay in place, while local farmers say it makes it harder to grow and harvest their crops. (CBC)

Nesathurai's move shows "leadership and initiative," the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group said in a letter to the board this week.

"Our only concern with this current regulation is that perhaps it does not go far enough to prevent virus spread among this population."

'Well beyond reasonable'

At least 164 migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at Scotlynn Group, a large-scale farming operation in Vittoria that trucks fruits and vegetables across North America.

"Dozens of them have reached out to us and others in our network trying to find a way to return to their countries of origin," the letter said. "These workers feel abandoned and in grave danger. They also feel unduly blamed, when in fact, it is their living and working conditions that continue to make them more vulnerable to COVID-19."

Schuyler, meanwhile, says he's more inclined to listen to the independent board, which heard the case from May 25 to June 1. He wants the workers to be healthy too, he said. But the three-per-bunkhouse rule is based on three people being the average size of a home in Haldimand and Norfolk. In other words, it's arbitrary.

"The thing has gotten well beyond reasonable," he said. He wants the health unit to work more with the farmers.

"The whole appeal thing never should have happened. What we need is good communication between the farm community and the health unit."

Finding a balance between food and safety

Schuyler employs 220 seasonal farm workers, most from Trinidad and Jamaica, for his apple, sour cherry, grain and oilseed crops. He's hired some local workers, he said, but only about half of them stay. The international workers he hires return year after year, he said, and are skilled at what they do.

He fears for the impact COVID-19 will have on Ontario's food supply. "It would almost be nice if we could get the federal and provincial governments to pay farmers to take the year off," he said.

"We just need to figure out how we're going to farm here, and get food security and community and worker health … Things are simple on the farm. We've got to grow food and keep people safe. That's what we're trying to do."

Norfolk council acts as the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit's board of health, and it can't overturn Nesathurai's order. So far, it hasn't asked him to stop the appeal. Haldimand did this week.

Councillors from both counties this week said no one told them about the appeal of a case that's cost about $150,000 so far. The appeal will largely be "a paper exercise," county solicitor Paula Boutis told the board.

Niagara doesn't have a bunkhouse restriction. Neither does neighbouring Brant County, which has 405 workers on farms right now, doesn't have a section 22 order. Health unit inspectors started proactive bunkhouse inspections in early April, says spokesperson Ryan Spiteri, and more are expected as workers arrive. 

Farmers there are also required to provide their workers with two weeks of paid quarantine upon arrival in locations with enough space for physical distancing. 

In Hamilton, there are 432 temporary farm workers as of June 18, staying in 80 bunkhouses operated by 48 operators, says Hamilton Public Health Services. Six of those bunkhouses are in Ancaster, 10 in Dundas, 56 in Flamborough, four in Hamilton and four in Stoney Creek.

Workers self-isolate for two weeks after arriving, either in a designated bunkhouse or in hotel and motel rooms. 

"The federal government set out requirements for these sites during COVID, in addition to existing public health requirements, and we have and continue to work with the farms to ensure these are implemented," Public Health Services said in an email. "At this point an order has not been necessary."

'Now look where we are'

Rev. Peter Ciallella of Blessed Sacrament Church in Burford wants Nesathurai's order to stay. He's been ministering to migrant workers for three years, he said in a letter. His community has prepared 220 gift bags for quarantined Scotlynn workers.

"We cannot risk the lives and health of other migrant farm workers," he said.

Coun. Mike Columbus, who represents Delhi, wishes there was some grey area.

"I just wish [Nesathurai] was a little more flexible and understanding," he said at the board meeting this week.

"I asked for that three weeks ago when we talked about this, and now look where we are today. We lost this hearing."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca