Hamilton

Norfolk County farmers protest COVID-19 rules designed to protect migrant workers

Farmers in Haldimand-Norfolk took their tractors to area roadways Tuesday to protest COVID-19 rules designed to protect migrant workers, which they fear will severely impact the 2021 growing season.

Region's medical officer of health has defended mandatory quarantine, bunking limits

Norfolk area farmers parade their tractors down a local road to raise awareness about their concern with COVID-19 protocols designed to protect migrant workers. (CBC)

Haldimand and Norfolk farmers took their tractors to area roadways Tuesday to protest COVID-19 rules the health unit says protect migrant workers, but that the farmers fear will severely impact the 2021 growing season.

They say if workarounds aren't developed in the coming days or weeks, then Canadians may face a shortage of outdoor-grown, affordable and safe fresh fruits and vegetables in 2021 and possibly beyond.

"The 14-day quarantine program in 2021 has become nothing short of a nightmare," said one farmer, Frank Schonberger, who showed up to Tuesday's protest.

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit implemented a section 22 order back in March 2020, which required some 4,000 workers who arrived from other countries to quarantine for two weeks, before starting on the job.

The section 22 order also bars more than three workers from staying in the same bunkhouse, regardless of floor space. Any overflow of additional workers must quarantine in hotel rooms, which farmers have paid for with some federal government support.

New, additional rules were implemented by the health unit last Monday regarding the transportation of farm workers from Pearson International Airport. Workers are now only allowed to travel in maximum groups of three, instead of by the bus-load. 

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

Rules are in place to protect migrant workers, organizer says

Groups working to support migrant workers have been largely supportive of the protocols brought in by the health unit.

"We know that congregate bunkhouse settings are one of the largest contributions to the rise of the pandemic around the farm worker population," Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers told CBC News.

And although farmers are frustrated with the effects of the restrictions, Ramsaroop says they are necessary to protect migrant workers. He called Tuesday's protest an event that was "against the interest of workers."

"[The protest] is against protecting the well-being of workers ... this is about protecting the profit margins of employers," Ramsaroop said.

Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers says it's important to implement safety protocols for temporary foreign workers on farms. (CBC)

But those farmers say the restrictions have tied their hands and created chaos in managing the quarantine of their workers.

In a recent news release, the Farmers of Ontario's Garden said the new rules leave employers of temporary foreign workers "on their own as far as getting the workers to their places of quarantine" and "limiting the number of workers who may travel together to quarantine cohorts."

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

More migrant workers are expected to begin arriving for this year's farming season on April 1. 

Workers who arrive from other countries to work in Norfolk must quarantine for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At the protest, Schonberger said employers are concerned about their workers. 

"Without our workers, we can't produce the food Canadians need," he said. But he wonders why the restrictions in Norfolk specifically are so strict.

Temporary foreign workers more at risk for COVID-19, health official says

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk's medical officer of health, has defended the COVID-19 protocols in place.

"If we didn't act right away, we'd have more farms impacted, more workers affected, potentially more people getting sick," Dr. Nesathurai told CBC News.

In a Monday press conference, he said his overall goal is to keep the community safe, adding that everyone has been affected by pandemic restrictions.

JP Gural is a mixed-heirloom certified organic vegetable grower specializing in heritage strains. (CBC)

He also pointed out that migrant workers are more at-risk of contracting the coronavirus 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."

JP Gural also attended Tuesday's protest. He usually hires three temporary foreign workers to assist him on his farm. Last year due to the restrictions, the workers he hired arrived from Mexico after a three-month delay.

"That three months almost completely destroyed my business," he told CBC News.

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie

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