Family of migrant worker 'devastated' by death linked to COVID-19, pastor tells memorial

For five seasons, Fausto Ramirez Plazas left Mexico for Canada to work on a farm, helping feed Canadians while providing for his family. He died on Thursday and a virtual memorial service was held the next day.

Fausto Ramirez Plazas was 'trying to make a better life for himself, for his children'

Temporary farm workers, such as the those shown in this file photo, quarantine after arriving in Ontario. Fausto Ramirez Plazas died on May 20. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For five seasons, Fausto Ramirez Plazas left Mexico for Canada to work on a farm, helping feed Canadians while providing for his family.

He died on Thursday. The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit reported he had been hospitalized and his death was "attributed" to COVID-19.

A virtual memorial service at Procyk Farms Ltd. near Wilsonville, Ont., on Friday afternoon was led by Rev. Peter Ciallella.

Work on the farm stopped at 1 p.m. ET. Staff, along with some of the owners, gathered with Ramirez Plazas's family, who joined through WhatsApp.

Ciallella said the family is "devastated."

"They were comforted somewhat, but it's hard," he said.

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"Death is never planned for, but especially in these circumstances. He's going to Canada, he's the breadwinner, he's trying to make a better life for himself, for his children, and this unfortunately happened with COVID."

The health unit has released few details of Ramirez Plazas's death, declining to give his name. But advocates, a representative of the farm and Ciallella all confirmed his identity.

Health officials have only said the worker who died "was residing at a residence located on a farm and was hospitalized prior to their passing."

Luisa Ortiz, an organizer with Migrant Workers Alliance For Change, said Ramirez Plazas has been coming to Canada since 2017.

He had to test negative for COVID-19 to board his flight in Mexico. He would have been tested again when the flight landed at Toronto's Pearson airport, before beginning a 14-day quarantine and undergoing a final test, Ortiz said.

Advocates say government needs to do more

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a vaccination clinic for workers at Pearson, though it's unclear whether Ramirez Plazas had received a shot.

Three migrant workers died last year after testing positive for COVID-19, making Ramirez Plazas the fourth, the alliance said.

Ontario's deputy chief coroner recently released a report into the deaths, offering 35 recommendations. They included better protections for the workers, improved access to health care, and changes to boost communications between governments and agencies.

"What the government is supposed to be doing is to protect workers, and it's very clear that it's not enough," said Ortiz, adding workers must be granted permanent status.

"These workers are dying in quarantine. It's supposed to protect them and this quarantine is mandated by the federal government, so this means that workers are dying on the federal government's watch."

Farm shares condolences

Representatives of the federal government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alliance says Ramirez Plazas was in quarantine with two other workers who also tested positive.

COVID-19 program requirements provided by Health and Social Services Haldimand-Norfolk outline that a maximum of three workers can isolate together, a measure that was met with protest by area farmers.

Christine Wheeler, who acts as human resources manager for Procyk Farms, declined to speak about the quarantine situation at the farm when reached by phone Friday afternoon.

Wheeler confirmed the memorial had taken place, and said it had been a stressful and emotional day.

"Our condolences to the family," she said, adding the farm will continue to help them in "any way we can."

Ortiz said workers on the farm are also upset by the death, noting the season is just beginning.

Ciallella said he's unaware of the details of Ramirez Plazas's death beyond he was being cared for in the intensive-care unit before he passed away.

Speaking generally, he said, hearing about a death can spark worries for other migrant workers.

"The anxiety level goes up."