Assessment centre for migrant workers opens in Leamington, following 2 COVID-19 deaths

A new COVID-19 assessment centre for migrant workers is opening its doors in Leamington Tuesday, one day after a report which says the lives of foreign workers are at risk.

Deaths prompted grim report on exploitation of migrant workers

This past weekend, a 24-year-old migrant worker, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, died from COVID-19. (GoFundMe)

As migrant workers plead for a safer work environment in Canada, a new COVID-19 assessment centre where health-care workers will swab, test and provide care for about 8,000 workers in the region is opening its doors.

The centre at the Nature Fresh Farms Recreation Centre — formerly Leamington's recreational complex — will aim to test about 500 to 600 workers per day. They'll arrive on a bus to have their temperature checked and get swabbed for the virus. 

If a worker is deemed symptomatic, they will be attended to by a nurse practitioner or physician in a makeshift clinic within the assessment centre. If not, they will get back on the bus.

"Our assessment centre in town has been open for a couple of months already, but may not be easily accessible to people who don't have easy transportation or are working during the day," said Dr. Ross Moncur, interim CEO for Erie Shores HealthCare.

A COVID-19 assessment centre for migrant workers is opening its doors, with a goal of testing 500 to 600 workers per day. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

"So this initiative is really about expanding the access to that assessment centre to this group within the agri-food sector to break down the barriers that might exist to them getting tested if they want to."

This past weekend, a 24-year-old migrant worker, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, died from COVID-19 — about one week after a 31-year-old worker also from Mexico, Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, died from the disease as well.

Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers' union, said the workers were misled by an agency to belive they would receive a fair salary, good housing conditions and proper access to food and transportation, but "they didn't get that."

Dr. Ross Moncur, interim CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare, says the new assessment centre will allow for greater access to testing for vulnerable populations. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"They were living in a house, sharing the space with over 30 people where they had only one washroom. The only washroom they had didn't work properly," said Escobar, adding farm workers did not receive proper medical attention.

"They were also transported in a van where the maximum capacity was for 14 people. My understanding is that, at some point, 20 or 21 people were transported.

According to Escobar, the 24-year-old who died came to Canada to financially support his family and get them out of debt. His family is currently conducting efforts to repatriate his body back to Mexico.

The opening of the Leamington-based assessment centre for migrant workers comes one day after a report from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, presenting details of multiple complaints regarding working and housing conditions for migrant workers.

Using complaints from more than 1,000 migrant workers, the alliance reported workers lacking PPE, a lack of food during quarantine, intimidation and surveillance threats from employers "often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols," unfair wage gouging and a lack of access to health care and information.

Santiago Escobar, national representative for United Food and Commercial Workers union, says the two migrant workers from Mexico who died of COVID-19 were misled concerning the quality of their living standards upon arriving in Canada. (RADIO-CANADA / ISABELLE CORRIVEAU)

Karen Cocq, an organizer for the advocacy group, said the alliance is calling for the federal government to give workers permanent resident status so they can assert their right to a safe workplace.

"We have known for years that this is a central issue with the temporary farm worker program," she said.

"Migrant workers have known for years that, without the ability to be able to defend against dismissal and deportation, they are simply unable to assert the few rights that they do have and it produces precisely the conditions of abuse and exploitation and neglect that we are now see exploding in the form of COVID-19 outbreaks."

At the opening of the Leamington-based assessment centre for migrant workers, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said health officials expressed concerns early on over the close environment where farm workers would stay.

But since the workforce was of a younger demographic, they were deemed to be at a lower risk of feeling the effects of COVID-19.

Karen Cocq says the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change is calling for the federal government to grant permanent resident status to migrant workers. (CBC News)

She added the greenhouse facilities she knows of are doing the best they can and are undertaking measures to deal with the virus, but the pandemic has opened their eyes to the fact that changes are needed.

"We're seeing this under a new light. I agree there are probably conditions where they are less than ideal," said MacDonald. "I do believe that, much like long-term care, we'll have to change our method of operation as far as sanitization, all of that goes. But living conditions — living quarters — will probably have to change."

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald was not satisfied with OPP's services in Leamington. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)