Auditor General report critical of provincial response to COVID-19 among migrant workers

A special report released by Ontario’s Auditor General blasts the provincial government when it comes to how it handled COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers.

Report says that no provincial directives, resulted 'in different responses and measures across the province'

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk criticized province for not issuing a province-wide order to protect foreign farm worker. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A special report released by Ontario's auditor general blasts the provincial government when it comes to how it handled COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers.

The report released Wednesday looked at preparedness for, and management of, the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk criticizes the province for not issuing a province-wide order to protect foreign farm workers instead of what it did issue, a memo "'strongly recommending' that local health units issue their own directives to decrease the risk of transmission of COVID‑19 on farms."

The report also points out that this memo came on June 21, eight weeks after the first farm outbreak in April. 

"Without additional provincial directives, each of the 34 public health units had to make decisions independently, resulting in different responses and measures across the province," the report read.

There have been 1,276 positive cases of COVID-19 among farm workers to date in Windsor-Essex County, according to the health unit, and two workers died in the region from the virus. In Chatham-Kent, there were 147 cases detected among farm workers, most of which were attributed to an outbreak at a single Greenhouse facility. Most of the farm workers infected in the two counties were migrant workers living in congregate settings.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit issued its first order to owners and operators of agricultural farms on May 27, which stated Windsor-Essex agricultural farms are high-risk settings for the spread of COVID-19 and failure to adhere to various COVID-19 measures could result in a $5,000 fine. 

It also said that prior to the release of that order, the health unit was having regular communication with owners and operators of agricultural facilities.

Silhouette of a person picking a plant from the ground.
Over 1,200 farm workers contracted COVID-19 in Windsor-Essex County, and two in the region died because of it. (CBC)

The report goes on to say that the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Williams, could have used his power to issue province-wide directives "especially on requirements to wear masks and precautions for temporary foreign workers." 

The report also compared the response of health officials in Ontario to the response by B.C. officials, who issued an order in April to employers telling them to provide accommodation to temporary foreign workers including those working on farms "to mandate quarantine and other public health measures so as to more effectively and proactively address the risk of their congregate living arrangements," the report read. 

"No such formal order was made by Ontario," says Lysyk.

Others weigh in

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald was pushing for higher levels of government to take charge when numbers of positive cases among migrant workers were peaking this summer. She said she doesn't disagree with what is written in the report.

"There was chaos, there was... a delayed reaction when it came to the agricultural industry, both from the province and from the health board," MacDonald said. 

MacDonald said while some allowances need to be given, as the play book was being written as things moved along, she said the fact is the reaction was slow.

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald says there were delays in dealing with issues at agricultural facilities both by the province and by the health unit. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"We reacted late and people got sick and some people died."

Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers said that the report reaffirms what his organization has been saying about the government's response since the beginning of the pandemic.

"The provincial government [and] the chief medical officer have failed to protect the interests of migrant workers," he said. 

"Migrant farm workers were put in a position where they had to fend for themselves through this pandemic and there was no leadership whatsoever from the provincial government, from the chief medical officer or for anybody who could have intervened to prevent the spread of this pandemic." 

Organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers Chris Ramsaroop says the Auditor General's report reaffirms what his group has been saying since the outset of the pandemic. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Joseph Sbrocchi of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said that the auditor general's comments showed that the situation growers were facing was an unprecedented one.

"Every situation is different and I really do believe that everybody was doing their best and to suggest that there wasn't confusion would not be correct, there was plenty of confusion," he said.

Premier Doug Ford also responded to the report Wednesday saying there was 21 pages worth of inaccuracies in the report, and that it's not the auditor general's job to give health advice but should rather focus on financial matters.

No Race-Based information collected

The report was also critical of the provincial government's decision not to collect "race-based information" and therefore it was not factored into the decision-making when it came to preventing COVID-19 in "high risk" populations. 

"Immigrant populations have experienced disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19, including higher rates of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19," the report read.