COVID-19 assessment centre for migrant farm workers closing as cases among population climb

A COVID-19 testing centre for agriculture workers is closing its doors this week, after a low turnout of workers seeking the test.

One farm owner says workers fear not being paid, urges other employers to commit to fairer wages

The COVID-19 assessment centre for agricultural workers in Leamington, Ont. is closing this week due to a decline in those seeking to use the facility. (Vince Robinet/CBC)

A COVID-19 testing centre targeted at migrant farm workers in southwestern Ontario is closing Thursday, even though the number of cases among those workers continues to climb.

Leamington, Ont. hospital Erie Shores HealthCare began the initiative on June 9, aimed at stemming the spread of the disease among temporary foreign workers who live and work together in close quarters.

The testing centre at the Nature Fresh Farms Recreation Centre has been open for nine days, and tested more than 750 workers, according to a news release. However, the goal was to test the roughly 8,000 migrant workers in the region and officials say they are closing due to poor turnout.

"This initiative expanded access to COVID testing to workers within the agri-food sector, doing what we could to break down some of the barriers to testing that previously existed," said Dr. Ross Moncur, chief of staff and interim CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare, in a media release.

If demand increases, the facility could reopen.

Mexican government concerned about workers safety

On Monday, Mexico said it would not send any more temporary foreign workers to Canada until it received answers on why two men died due to COVID-19. That means as many as 5,000 temporary foreign workers expected to arrive in Canada in the coming months could be held back.

But the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture told the Canadian Press on Tuesday that his organization has been told the halt applies only to farms with active outbreaks.

"They're just doing their due diligence for their people," Keith Currie said. "They're making sure that anyone that has an outbreak is handling it properly." 

A 31-year-old and a 24-year-old both died due to COVID-19, after contracting the disease while in Canada. The men worked at different farms in the Essex County region. 

To date, roughly 350 farm workers in the region have tested positive for the disease, with new cases being reported daily by the Windsor Essex County Health Unit.

Low turnout at testing facility could be due to fear

The owner of one Essex County farm, who had taken advantage of the testing facility for his own workers, said he is upset by the "lack of action" by other agricultural business owners to protect their staff — particularly temporary foreign workers — against the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Many workers were nervous to be tested because they were afraid if they were not able to work, they would not be paid, said Aaron Hamer, president and CEO of Highline Produce Ltd in Leamington, Ont.

If they raise their voices, the employer can get rid of them because the employer has all the power...- Syed Hussan, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

"We at Highline had identified that as a possible disincentive to identify that they have symptoms or to be comfortable being off work because they're not making money," said Hamer.

"So we've pledged to all of our employees that we will make sure that they're made whole, financially."

Hamer is urging other owners to do the same.

An advocate for temporary foreign workers said these individuals deserve to have the protection that would be afforded with permanent resident status — an idea Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday his government was considering. 

Health officials say many temporary foreign workers in Canada may be hesitant to access public health care because of cultural differences or fear they may not get paid. (CBC News)

Syed Hussan, with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said right now these workers are not in a position to speak up if they're concerned about their health and safety.

"If they raise their voices, the employer can get rid of them because the employer has all the power, so the immediate comprehensive solution is permanent resident status today," said Hussan. 

"That's the one-stop solution that transfers power and gives workers the ability to protect themselves, rather than housing regulations and inspections, which must happen. But we need a solution that gives people the ability to save themselves today."

Hussan contends most farms that employ migrant workers are large businesses — not family operations — and they can afford to provide better conditions for employees without needing governments to help pay the bill.

Calls for mandatory testing

During a Wednesday news conference, Premier Doug Ford urged farm owners and workers to get tested for COVID-19. 

The premier is resisting calls for mandatory testing of migrant farm workers in Essex County — a call the provincial government would have to make similar to the testing they ordered in the province's long-term care homes. 

"You can't force anyone to get tested, that's the thing," said Ford. "I want the farmers to work with us and I absolutely love the farmers, but the hospital had to close down the centre because no one was showing up."

The surge of cases in the farm worker population in recent weeks has held back the Windsor-Essex area from moving into Stage 2 of reopening. 

"I understand the reluctance in some cases, they're scared ... Just please get tested," he said. 

Our health care system is very different than in Mexico. Some may not have come into contact with a health-care provider and fear and apprehension comes into play,- Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health in Windsor-Essex

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, agrees mandatory testing would be too heavy-handed.

"I understand that the take-up rates are very low," said Bowman. He said if officials want turnout to improve, they need to understand why people don't want to be tested. "If you had mobile units and you were to really try to assess what it is people are concerned about and maybe some kind of assurance that if people are positive what will happen," he said.

WATCH | Ford pleads with farm owners and workers to get tested for COVID-19:

Ontario premier pleads with farms and workers to be tested for COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 1:36
Doug Ford says it is 'unfair' to residents of Windsor-Essex the region can't move into Stage 2 of reopening due to outbreaks in agri-farm sector.

"They could lose income, and it's not clear what happens to them if they're positive, and again, there may be cultural factors here that really do have to be respected," said Bowman.

Those cultural factors are something Windsor-Essex's medical officer of health has noted as well.

"Our health care system is very different than in Mexico, some may not have come into contact with a health care provider and fear and apprehension comes into play," said Dr. Wajid Ahmed. 

Ahmed said the needs for these workers are different than other people in the community, and officials need to recognize that and have a plan to accommodate. 

The doctor has made short-term recommendations to various levels of government about improving living and working conditions, and is also pushing for more long-term solutions from a public health standpoint. 

With files from Jason Viau and the Canadian Press


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