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As more migrant workers contract COVID-19, advocates urge for system to change

As temporary foreign workers on southwestern Ontario farms mourn the death of a colleague and deal with a spreading coronavirus outbreak, advocates for the workers say COVID-19 has brought long-simmering health and safety issues to the forefront. 

At least 164 workers from a farm near Simcoe, Ont. have tested positive for the virus

Across southwestern Ontario, figures compiled by CBC News indicate that at least 245 migrant farm workers have fallen ill to COVID-19 and on Saturday a 31-year-old worker from Mexico was the first to succumb to the virus.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As temporary foreign workers on southwestern Ontario farms mourn the death of a colleague and deal with a spreading coronavirus outbreak, advocates for the workers say COVID-19 has brought long-simmering health and safety issues to the forefront. 

The pandemic has turned a job that for decades has been a lifeline for many into one that is potentially deadly. Earlier this week, a 31-year-old worker from Mexico died from the disease, sending shockwaves through area farms that rely on the foreign workers in all aspects of their operations.  

"There is fear. Many workers want to speak up for their rights, many workers wonder what to do to ensure that their health is taken care of, but it's this idea that if they speak up, they won't be able to return to Canada," said Chris Ramsaroop, of the group Justice for Migrant Workers.

"It's frustration that is just not willful ignorance, but it is the structure of this program and it's the way that our agricultural system works that denies migrant workers their their ability to exert their rights in the workplace."

Ramsaroop said several migrant workers he has spoken to have said that they've complained of feeling sick, but were not taken seriously by their employers. 

The head of the Mexican consulate in Leamington, Ont. says the country needs migrant farm workers to keep food on Canadians' tables, and migrant workers value the opportunity to do the grunt work in order to provide a better livelihood for their families back home. 

Across southwestern Ontario, figures compiled by CBC News indicate that at least 187 migrant farm workers have fallen ill to COVID-19, and on Saturday a 31-year-old worker from Mexico succumbed to the virus.

"It's something we deeply regret," Alberto Bernal, the consul of Mexico in Leamington, Ont., told CBC News. "We're always concerned about the health of our workers ... and we're deeply saddened by this," he said. 

The consulate is working alongside local health authorities to repatriate the body of the man back to Mexico. 

The latest — and one of the largest — farm outbreaks in the region is at Scotlynn Group, a major producer of sweet corn, watermelon, asparagus and pumpkins in Vittoria, Ont., southwest of Simcoe, Ont.

On Monday, health officials with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit confirmed that 164 of 216 migrant farm workers, all from Mexico, had tested positive for the virus. 

"They're all in an individual hotel room and are under a strict isolation plan to clear the virus and make sure we don't have a further spread," said Scott Biddle, president of Scotlynn Group, adding that anyone who had been on the premises and their close contacts have been tested for the virus.

It's still uncertain how the workers contracted the virus in the first place.

Biddle said they were all isolated in individual hotel rooms for 14 days before starting to work on the farm. The workers only left the farm for groceries, and even for that Biddle said they would go before the store was open to the public. 

While seven workers have been hospitalized, Biddle said five are set to be discharged while two will remain in hospital. 

Meanwhile, the remaining workers are isolated, asymptomatic and confused as to why they are not able to work.

"Some can't believe they're COVID-positive, but they are. They're under isolation, but we will continue to pay them, so they don't feel the financial effect of it," Biddle said. 

Speak up if ill, Mexican consul asks workers

The head of the Mexican consulate in Leamington said any worker who may feel intimidated to speaking about potential COVID-19 symptoms with their employer can reach out to the Mexican consulate to get help. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As advocates suggest, workers may fear speaking up about health concerns to their employers, so the Mexican consul is pleading with workers to speak to the consulate. 

"Let us know," Bernal said. "We need to know. This is not about keeping your job or not, we're talking about your life in this case."

For decades, migrant workers, as young as 18, from Mexico and the Caribbean have been coming to work on Canadian farms under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and for years, advocacy groups have been fighting for better rights and access to services. 

Bernal is urging workers to reach out to the consulate directly and notify them of any signs of illness. 

"If [workers] protect themselves, they can ensure the possibility that when everything gets better they can come back to Canada and do the work that they are looking for," he said. "And employers are aware of the importance of that." 

About the Author

Sofia Rodriguez

Reporter/Editor

Sofia Rodriguez is a reporter with CBC News in London. She is a graduate of Western University and Fanshawe College. You can email her at sofia.rodriguez@cbc.ca

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