Caravan of cars hits the road to show support for migrant workers amid COVID-19

A caravan of more than 40 cars went from Toronto to St. Catharines, Ont. on Saturday to demand better protections and full immigration status for migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activists say Ottawa must act because conditions on farms unsafe for foreign workers

'It is shameful that they do not have status,' Deena Ladd, of the Workers' Action Centre, says. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

A caravan of more than 40 cars went from Toronto to St. Catharines, Ont. on Saturday to demand better protections and full immigration status for migrant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cars, hand-painted with slogans in yellow calling for justice, passed through Hamilton and Beamsville, where more vehicles joined the caravan, and circled a farm in Niagara Region where there has been a COVID-19 oubreak. 

Then the people in the caravan gathered for a physically distanced rally outside the office of St. Catharines Liberal MP Chris Bittle. Organizers of the caravan say it's up to the federal government to take action.

Deena Ladd, executive director of the Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre, said farm workers are living and working in unsafe conditions. They are housed in cramped bunkers, where there is no physical distancing, and are not being taken to hospital when they are suffering from COVID-19, she said. 

Permanent resident status would enable the farm workers to demand better conditions from the federal government, she said.

"It is shameful that they do not have status," Ladd said at Christie Pits Park early Saturday.

"We are outraged at these conditions. We believe that farm workers who come into our country to pick our fruits and grow our vegetables should have immigration status. Immigration status is critical for people to be able to speak up about the kinds of conditions that they are facing," she said.

According to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, two migrant farm workers, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, 24, died of COVID-19 in Windsor-Essex Country. Hundreds of farm workers are infected with the virus in Ontario and at least five are in hospital, with two in intensive care units and one on a ventilator. An inspector is investigating the two deaths, the Ontario agriculture ministry says.

A slogan is painted in yellow on a vehicle in the caravan. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

People in the caravan include labour leaders, immigrants and community activists, she said. About 60 people took part in all. The caravan is one of a number of events building momentum for a national day of action on Sunday calling for status for all, she added.

"In our experience, when farm workers speak out, they are quickly deported, they are seen as a troublemaker and the farms don't want them," she said.

"What would actually really fundamentally allow workers to have protection is to have status. We believe any worker coming into country, whether it's taking care of our children as caregivers, whether it's working in meat processing plants, whether it's working on the farms, everyone should have status."

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said permanent resident status would give migrant workers a way out of unsafe living and working conditions.

"We are saying that migrant workers must have permanent status so that they can leave a bad job, they can walk out of unsafe housing and so that they can live during COVID-19," Hussan said.

"We need swift action. People are dying. Permanent status gives the power back to workers to protect themselves."

About 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses. Many of the workers come from Mexico, the Caribbean and Guatemala, and when they arrived this year, they were required to go into isolation for 14 days.

Outbreaks reported on farms in southwestern Ontario

Outbreaks that have affected dozens of migrant workers have been reported in Chatham-Kent, Niagara Region and Elgin County.

An outbreak in Norfolk County has seen 165 workers at a local farm test positive for COVID-19, with seven of them admitted to hospital.

An activist paints a slogan on a car involved in the caravan for migrant workers that left Toronto early Saturday for St. Catharines, Ont. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

In response to outbreaks on farms in southwestern Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has ordered government health officials to increase COVID-19 testing among migrant workers.

At the time, Ford said it was a crucial move to protect both the workers and ensure the safety of the province's food supply chain.

"I will definitely be addressing this with public health to make sure that we get all the migrant workers tested to keep them safe, to keep the supply chain and the food safe," he said at the time. "We're on this."

Hayley Chazan, spokesperson for the Ontario health ministry, said it is conducting testing among what it calls "priority groups" within places where people are housed closely together and that includes shared living spaces of migrant workers.

On Friday, Ernie Hardeman, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said in a news release that the province is spending up to $15 million to improve health and safety on farms and in food processing facilities.

The money will expand Ontario's agri-food workplace protection program, a cost-sharing program that enables farmers to buy personal protective equipment and medical testing equipment, increase cleaning and disinfection, redesign work stations, and modify workplaces and housing to ensure there is physical distancing.

"Agri-food businesses and their hardworking employees play a critical role in keeping our food supply chain strong, providing us with fresh, high-quality and nutritious food all year round," Hardeman said in the release.

"Today's investment will allow farmers to adapt to this new environment and implement additional health and safety measures during the COVID-19 outbreak."

Avi Yufest, spokesperson for the Ontario agriculture ministry, said on Saturday that the new funding for the program will help farmers better protect employees.

With files from The Canadian Press