Haldimand-Norfolk issues COVID-19 ID cards to migrant farm workers

The health unit for Haldimand and Norfolk has issued identification cards to the area's seasonal migrant workers, raising the eyebrows of some who say it seems to resemble carding.

Haldimand and Norfolk host 4,300 migrant workers a year, and most are from Mexico and the Caribbean

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit has distributed identification cards to migrant workers, many of whom are from Mexico and the Caribbean. (Submitted)

The health unit for Haldimand and Norfolk has issued identification cards to the area's seasonal migrant workers, raising the eyebrows of some who say it seems to resemble carding.

Shanker Nesathurai (McMaster University)

The card has no photo, but includes the person's name, address, date of arrival in Canada, name of the farm employer and the phone number of that farmer. The health unit has distributed them to migrant workers, most of whom are from Mexico or the Caribbean. 

The cards are voluntary, and meant to be a way new arrivals can prove they've completed the 14-day COVID-19 quarantine, says Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, medical officer of health with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit. 

Nesathurai said the cards are another form of ID for workers who often only arrive with their passports. Some of the workers don't speak English, he said.

But Dusty Zamecnik, chair of Norfolk County's agricultural advisory board, said he's not sure how workers carrying ID cards slows the spread of COVID-19.

"This is carding and it's not right," said Zamecnik, who employs more than 40 workers from Trinidad and Jamaica at his farm near Langton. 

"I'm trying to understand the motivation behind it."

"It’s strange that there’s a kind of selective attention to people who are mostly black and brown migrant workers," says Ameil Joseph. (Ameil Joseph)

Ameil Joseph, a McMaster University associate professor who studies critical race theory, called it "peculiar."

"We know identification cards specifically targeted at those who belong to minority groups produce more problems than we would ever want. We know there are problems with identity, with enforcement, with surveillance."

Nesathurai, who is also a professor in McMaster's department of medicine, said the health of migrant workers during the pandemic is a serious issue. Outbreaks among migrant workers elsewhere in the country have been widespread and deadly, and had a deep economic impact. In Norfolk, two workers of the 4,300 who arrive each year showed symptoms, but ultimately did not have COVID-19.

"We're doing our very best to provide services for migrant farm workers," he said. "We've done it before COVID-19 and after COVID-19."

Police weren't consulted, he said. 

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As for who the workers would show the cards to, "the only time I could see it being perhaps used in some formal capacity would be if there had to be an assessment of a self-isolation residence," and someone didn't speak English, he said. 

The health unit issued an order on March 24 saying that incoming seasonal workers had to isolate for 14 days. It also ordered that no more than three seasonal workers could be housed in a bunkhouse during the quarantine period, and the rest were housed in hotels. The health unit approved quarantine plans individually before giving farms the OK to host new arrivals. The federal government provided $50 million to help pay for the quarantine of seasonal workers.

Some farmers are appealing the section 22 order through Lerners Laywers LLP. Jason Ryder, an asparagus farmer near Lynedoch, Ont., said the order has cost him about one-third of his crop. He hires 65 workers each year from Mexico, St. Lucia and Jamaica.

He expects the measures will impact a lot of crops. "This is just the starting point."


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