New housing rules being discussed to prevent migrant worker COVID-19 spread next season

Officials are trying to get prevent more COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers by consulting farmers about accommodations and releasing guidelines about preventing the virus from spreading.

Several COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked to communal living conditions on farms

Workers in a corn field. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Officials are trying to prevent more COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers by figuring out how to make shared accommodations safer and releasing guidelines to prevent the virus from spreading during next year's growing season.

The federal government launched consultations about how communal bunkhouses, where the majority of foreign workers live, could be made safer and more appealing to those who come from abroad to work on Canada's farms. 

Ontario this week released a plan to mitigate and manage outbreaks. 

Several foreign workers have died from COVID-19, and hundreds have been put into isolation because of outbreaks on farms. In the most recent case, 40 workers from an apple orchard in southwestern Ontario. The province hosts about 20,000 migrant workers every year. One advocacy group estimates 1,800 fell ill with coronavirus this year. 

"Migrant farm workers have for many decades pointed out how awful the housing situation is," said Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance. 

"The priority for us is to make sure that the federal government commits to making migrant worker voices and migrant worker opinions the central determinant of what happens going forward."

Bunkhouses crowded, cramped

The group is now scrambling to make consult migrant workers who have for the most part left Canada for the season. 

"The migrant workers are primarily people who actually live in these houses, but there doesn't seem to be a guarantee that the government is committed to ensuring that their voices are central," Hussan said. 

"At the same time that we are insisting that housing changes are important, we also need a fundamental overhaul of the system, starting with full and permanent immigration status for all," Hussan said. 

Growing calls to improve conditions for migrant farm workers

3 years ago
Duration 2:03
Advocates for migrant farm workers blame lax safety protocols and poor living conditions for COVID-19 outbreaks and want the federal and provincial government to do more to improve the situation.

The housing is controlled by the farmers, with workers sleeping in bunk beds. 

"They climb on top of each other just to go to sleep. Even during COVID-19, there are times when there is no access to clean bathrooms, no space for people to store their food, no privacy," Hussan said.

"These are inhumane living conditions, and even if they're not completely inhumane, they're substandard. And no matter how bad the situation is, workers don't have the autonomy to choose where they live or the power to tell their employers that they want a different siltation, because doing so means termination, homelessness, deportation and not being invited back the following year." 

Recently, one worker won a battle with his former employer after he was fired for speaking out about conditions on his farm. 

But farmers say they follow strict regulations on municipal, provincial and federal levels. 

"Back in March, my bunkhouse was inspected by the public health unit. Then the Ministry of Labour came out and did an inspection. Then the federal government, through the Integrity Branch of Service Canada. That's four. And then, at the end of August, the health unit came out again," said Ken Forth, a broccoli farmer in the Hamilton area president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS). 

"Everyone thinks we're out here running like the Wild West, but we're not. We're under a lot of rules and regulations by a lot of different levels of goverment to make sure that these guys coming to our farms are safe." 

Ontario launches strategy for farm workers

Earlier this week, Ontario launched its own strategy aimed at preventing and containing COVID-19 outbreaks on farms, protecting the health and wellness of workers and maintaining the viability of the agri-food sector.

"The health and safety of farm workers is top priority for fruit and vegetable growers," Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association, said in a statement.

The plan includes making sure testing is available for farm workers, that they work in cohorts whenever possible and wear proper protective gear, 

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, growers have made substantial efforts to adapt their farms to protect workers from the risks presented by COVID-19. This strategy, and the commitment by the government and industry to work together, further supports the efforts of growers to protect essential farm workers and maintain domestic food production."

But no migrant worker advocacy groups were involved in preparing the plan, the province admitted. 

That worries those advocacy groups, who say worker voices are often ignored in favour of farmers' wants. 

But Forth said he's worried that the pandemic, coupled with tight rules about workers, could lead to food shortages. 

"Everything we do every day can be improved. We want our people safe, and we do everything we possible can to keep them safe," Forth said. 

"It worries me, because if we see what's going on in the world, there's a limit of labour available to harvest those crops. No one remembers food shortages, and I never thought it would ever happen here, but we need to think about producing more food in this country, in conditions as safe as possible, with an eye to treating people properly. Otherwise we could be in big trouble."