Under quarantine to help contain COVID-19, migrant farm workers have fears of their own

"I know there are citizens here who are worried foreign workers will come here with the virus, but I think the foreign workers are even more worried they will get the virus here," says the owner of a strawberry patch in Île d'Orléans, near Quebec City.

As growing season gets underway, farmers and migrant workers adapt to new restrictions to stop the spread

Migrant workers from Mexico practise physical distancing as they wait to head to Quebec farms after arriving at Montreal's Trudeau airport. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Wearing masks over their worried faces, long-delayed migrant farm workers from Mexico climbed aboard buses waiting for them outside Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport on the weekend.

Their hands were sprayed with disinfectant soap and they were instructed to sit two seats apart from each other, to observe physical distancing rules. They then headed to farms across Quebec, where vegetable and fruit producers eagerly awaited their service.

For the next two weeks, the new arrivals are in quarantine, observing federal directives aimed at restricting the spread of COVID-19.

Guy Pouliot, who owns strawberry fields on Île d'Orléans, outside Quebec City, now has 110 workers in isolation, living in bunkhouses on the property.

He stocked fridges and pantries with groceries, and takes everyone's temperature and checks for symptoms daily.

Once they are able to work, not much will change, he said. The farmhands will need to continue to stay two metres apart from one another — something Pouliot said shouldn't be difficult in a strawberry field.

Workers sit apart to ensure physical distancing on the bus ride to their farms. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

But he said many have already asked if they can avoid going into town altogether, for the duration of their stay.

"I know there are citizens here who are worried foreign workers will come here with the virus, but I think the foreign workers are even more worried they will get the virus here," he said.

If the workers decide that's what they want, he will be doing their grocery shopping the whole summer, he said.

Behind schedule

Earlier this week, the federal government promised to offset some of the extra costs producers are facing.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $50 million in federal funding to provide $1,500 per worker, which can be used to cover wages while they are in quarantine or the cost of sheltering them appropriately in isolation for 14 days.

Fernando Borja, the director of FERME, which manages the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers in the province, said that money comes as a relief to farmers already struggling with delays to the growing season.

"They have a lot of financial worries," he said.

"We are already three weeks behind, so that will have an impact on production."

Workers are seen at the Michel Perreault strawberry farm in Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse. (Julia Page/CBC)

Quebec usually hosts 16,000 migrant agricultural workers every growing season, employed on farms and in processing plants.

Workers from Guatemala still haven't arrived in Quebec and may not for several more weeks, due to travel restrictions in their home country. 

"If we get 10,000 this year, we'll be happy," Borja said.

The Liberal government in Ottawa shocked the agricultural sector last month by declaring that temporary foreign workers would be barred from Canada, as part of severe restrictions placed on immigration.

Across the country, some 60,000 temporary visas are granted each year to foreign agricultural workers.

The government quickly reversed the decision, after farmers and others warned the agricultural sector would face near-collapse.

Now, all workers not already in Canada are expected to be screened for symptoms before they leave their home countries.

Regardless, Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne still expects a shortfall of roughly 8,000 workers this season.

To support the agricultural sector and help the province produce its own food, he announced on Friday a $42.6 million plan to recruit about 8,500 out-of-work Quebecers and students — training them to take to the fields and keep local farms going strong.

Those who work at least 25 hours a week will get a $100 weekly bonus on top of their minimum-wage salary of $13.10 per hour.

Questions of access to care

McGill University Prof. Jill Hanley, who specializes in the social rights of migrant populations, said she is concerned that if workers do get sick, they will have difficulty accessing care.

"There aren't a lot of farm workers who speak English or French at a level that they can take advantage of the public information," she said.

"We've already had calls from people who are already on the farm saying if they call the provincial info line for COVID, that nobody is able to respond to them in Spanish."

In Pouliot's case, he said workers were given material about COVID-19 in Spanish.

He is taking other precautions as well. He said meal times will be staggered, and not every bunk is filled, to ensure workers can comply with physical distancing rules.

Pouliot said he is one of the lucky farmers, because he expects to get all the workers he needs.

He encouraged Quebecers who are out of work to help fill the gaps at other farms, though he acknowledged there would be a steep learning curve for most, including himself, after spending a lot of time in an office chair.

"It's not an easy job."


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate change, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

With files from The Canadian Press and Spencer Van Dyk

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