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Norfolk County farmers plan tractor protest over bunkhouse COVID-19 rules

Norfolk area farmers say they will be taking tractors to area roadways this Tuesday in protest over COVID-19 regulations, which they say could have dire consequences for the 2021 growing season.

Medical officer of health says ‘we’re doing our very best’ as farmers take tractors to roadways

The Farmers of Ontario's Garden says Norfolk's farming community is presently in a state of crisis and immediate action is required by all levels of government. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Norfolk area farmers say they will be taking tractors to area roadways this Tuesday in protest over COVID-19 regulations, which they say could have dire consequences for the 2021 growing season.

In a news release on Monday, The Farmers of Ontario's Garden said Norfolk's farming community is presently in a state of crisis and immediate action is required by all levels of government.

"Our hands have been tied by our local Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health Section 22 Order as it pertains to the three-man per bunkhouse quarantine regulations and the new federal government switch testing procedures," the group said. 

"These two requirements together have made the worker quarantine unmanageable from both the growers' and the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit's standpoint."

Haldimand-Norfolk farmers and the health unit have been engaged in a year-long battle over the health authorities' migrant worker bunkhouse order.

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai (McMaster University)

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the area's medical officer of health, issued a section 22 order in March 2020 saying 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.

New letter of instruction issued

On Sunday the health unit issued a letter of instruction with new guidelines for the transportation of farm workers from Pearson International Airport.

According to the farmers' group, the letter states that employers of temporary foreign workers were "on their own as far as getting the workers to their places of quarantine, limiting the number of workers who may travel together to quarantine cohorts."

"The above Order and letter of instruction are all exclusive to the Haldimand–Norfolk Board of Health region and have made on-farm quarantine of temporary foreign workers an extremely difficult and unrealistic expectation for majority of farmers who employ TFWs.

"Unless immediate solutions are developed and taken in the coming days and weeks, a shortage of outdoor-grown, affordable and safe fresh fruits and vegetables in 2021 and beyond is a realistic concern for Canadians," the group said.

Trying to keep the community safe

On Monday Nesathurai said his overall goal is to keep the community safe, adding that everyone has been affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

"This year, on top of everything else that we're doing at the health district, we also have to manage the vaccine program, so it is complicated," Nesathurai said during a news conference.  

"I recognize that as public health officials not every action that we take can have the endorsement of every person but we're doing our very best, under the most trying of circumstances, to keep the community safe, all 110,000 people in the district."

Dr. Nesathurai says migrant farm workers have a higher risk of COVID-19 than the overall general population. (File Photo)

Additionally, Nesathurai said migrant farm workers have a higher risk of COVID-19 than the overall general population. 

"There are 600 bunkhouses in this health district. In this health district we have more migrant farm workers per capita than any other district in the province, and in absolute terms we're number two only to Windsor," he said.

"Those other districts, which have larger populations, like Windsor, are much larger from a staffing point-of-view. So not only do we have a greater challenge from using our resources at the health district, we also have less people who work at the public health service to manage this."

5 outbreaks on 22 farms

Nesathurai said in the last few weeks there have been five COVID-19 outbreaks that affected workers on 22 farms.

"This entire episode resulted in 10 cases and we are putting in measures to reduce the likelihood of these outbreaks from happening in the future," he said.

Based on what has happened in previous cases, Nesathurai said even if an outbreak happens on a farm, the exposure also spreads to people who are not on the farm.

He also said it can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to manage an outbreak.

"We only have a limited number of staff and our staff have been working a substantive amount of hours," Nesathurai said.

"If we have more outbreaks it means we have to assign staff from the vaccine program and other programs to support outbreaks. One outbreak at its peak required 40 staff to manage it so we want to manage cases so we don't have large outbreaks."

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