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Ontario farm with migrant worker who died of COVID-19 hit with 20 charges

An Ontario farm where an outbreak of COVID-19 affected more than 200 workers, including a migrant worker from Mexico who later died, now faces 20 charges following an inspection by the provincial Labour Ministry. 

Outbreak at Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers in Vittoria infected more than 200 workers

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

An Ontario farm where an outbreak of COVID-19 affected more than 200 workers, including a man from Mexico who later died, now faces 20 charges following an inspection by the provincial Labour Ministry.

Charges filed with the Ontario Court of Justice under the Occupational Health and Safety Act say Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers Inc. and its owner, Scott Biddle, failed to take "every precaution reasonable" to protect workers from COVID-19 infection on the vegetable farm in Vittoria, located about 75 kilometres south of Hamilton. 

Scores of workers tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak in the spring of 2020. Juan Lopez Chaparro, a 55-year-old from Mexico, died in June that year after working at the farm. 

The charges, which have not been proven in court, say the farm and its owner failed to protect workers in the following ways:

  • Workers weren't informed about the need to wear face coverings.
  • Workers didn't have access to hand hygiene facilities. 
  • There was a lack of cleaning on touch surfaces. 
  • Workers with a higher likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 and those showing symptoms weren't given information or instructions to self-isolate.  

CBC News called Scotlynn group for comment on Monday after 5 p.m. ET and was told by an employee who answered the phone to call back on Tuesday.

Chaparro — like thousands of workers who come to Ontario each growing season — was in Canada as part of the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which allows farmers to hire temporary foreign workers.

One worker at Scotlynn Sweetpac, Luis Gabriel Flores, was fired after speaking out about conditions at the farm. He was Chaparro's bunkmate.

The province's Labour Relations Board ordered Scotlynn Growers to pay Flores $20,000 in lost wages and $5,000 in damages.

Migrant workers typically live in communal bunkhouses with shared kitchens and bathrooms, conditions health officials and advocates for migrant workers had warned, prior to the outbreak, created unsafe conditions in a pandemic. Advocates say the workers' families rely on money they earn in Canada, and many don't speak out for fear of losing their jobs and the ability to earn during the growing season.

Karen Cocq, who's with the group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the charges should have come much sooner than a year after Chaparro's death.

"[The delay] means the systems that we currently have in place, that are supposed to enforce laws and protect workers, clearly are not working," she said. 

Cocq said the case involving Chaparro marks the first time any Ontario employer has been charged in response to a worker's death due to a COVID-19 outbreak. 

The penalties section of the Occupational Health and Safety Act list possible penalties ranging from jail sentences of up to a year and fines that range up to $1.5 million.

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