COVID-19 deaths of 3 Ontario farm workers prompt coroner's call for changes

A deputy chief coroner's review in response to the deaths of three Mexican farm workers in Ontario calls for better oversight of living conditions and improved access to health care for temporary agricultural workers.

Report calls for tighter inspections of housing, better communication between agencies

Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero sent this photo to his wife, Juana Vazquez, on April 11 while working in a greenhouse near Kingsville, Ont. He's one of three Mexican nationals who died after coming to Canada to work on farms in Ontario in 2020. (Submitted by Juana Vazquez)

A deputy chief coroner's review of the COVID-19 deaths of three migrant farm workers in Ontario is calling for better safeguards and improved working conditions for foreign seasonal agricultural workers, a population that faces barriers to accessing health care and added dangers due to communal living quarters. 

The report includes 35 recommendations, calling on everything from improved access to health care to better communication between governments and agencies involved in bringing foreign workers to Canada each growing season. 

In 2020, the three Mexican nationals died in May and June. All three men were under age 60 and contracted COVID-19 after arriving to work on Ontario farms. 

They were: 

The report by Ontario's deputy chief coroner, Reuven R. Jhirad, outlines steps to make conditions safer for temporary foreign agricultural workers. Most come to Canada in pursuit of better wages.

Much of the report focuses on the need to streamline information sharing between the various agencies involved in bringing workers to Canada. The recommendations call for better ways to inform workers about their rights and services available to them, including where to access health care and information on labour laws. 

One recommendation calls for a single phone line to be set up that would allow workers to report violations or concerns about work conditions, with information available in languages other than English or French. 

Farm workers a vaccination priority: coroner

The report says foreign farm workers should be considered a high priority group when it comes to accessing COVID-19 vaccinations. It also calls for isolation centres to be set up in communities where they're working to deal with any outbreaks.

Generally, foreign farm workers have visas that tie them to a single employer. The report recommends changes to allow workers more freedom to move between different work sites during the growing season. 

Most foreign farmer workers live in communal housing, generally bunkhouses, provided by their employers.

As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded last year, many of those bunkhouses were found to be dangerously cramped with little separation between sleeping spaces.

Juan Lopez Chaparro died June 20, 2020, after contracting COVID-19 from the Scotlynn Group farm where he was employed. (Submitted by Chaparro Family)

The report also calls for:

  • Better standards to make housing safer and calls for farms to be subject to unscheduled inspections to ensure the bunkhouses are safer. 
  • Better access to vaccinations for foreign workers, along with random and directed COVID-19 testing on farms.
  • Foreign workers who are undocumented to have access to health care without repercussions to the workers or their employers. 

The report's conclusion outlines plans to follow up on the status of the recommendations, to see whether they are accepteded and implemented, within six months and again a year later.