As Mexico halts influx of migrant workers, officials discuss next steps to stop spread in Ontario

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he offered his condolences to Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for the two temporary workers who haved died due to COVID-19 in Canada — as officials in southwestern Ontario coordinate an approach to slowly the spread of the virus among the vulnerable sector. 

Premier Doug Ford says he can't force workers to get tested for COVID-19

In Windsor-Essex, about 340 farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. (CBC)

In the region where farm workers have been hardest hit by COVID-19, government and health officials provided an update on their roles in preventing the rampant spread of the virus among the vulnerable population.

About 343 temporary foreign workers in the Windsor-Essex region of southwestern Ontario — home to hundreds of farm and greenhouse operations — have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. Two young men from Mexico have died.

During a media press conference Tuesday, officials explained their individual roles when it comes to caring for migrant workers in the area.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour has provided workplaces and workers with information handouts, including some in Spanish, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working with agri-businesses to connect them with health care partners. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has inspected accommodations, offered guidance and started case management, while a hospital has done outreach work with those already isolated and set up an assessment centre specifically for migrant workers.

Consul of Mexico Albert Bernal acknowledged his government's choice to hold back some 5,000 workers, saying there are already 11,000 working in Canada and that their safety is the upmost priority.

The two deaths prompted an announcement from Mexico's ambassador Monday that the country would not send more workers to Canada until there is more clarity around the two deaths.

"Even though there are strong campaigns from health authorities and growers associations and groups, in some ways we're still short. How? I don't know," said Bernal. "We are dealing with two unfortunate cases of the passing of workers, and two workers are too much. It's something we need to face but also we need to solve."

Many officials, as well as advocates, have said shared housing accommodations are a major driver behind the spread of the virus among foreign workers.   

Despite Mexico holding back migrant workers from coming into Canada, Albert Bernal says the safety of the 11,000 workers who already here is of top priority. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

Prior to the pandemic, Bernal admitted the issue "comes up a lot" and that there had been complaints with employers in the past. 

"First, we try to encourage them to fulfil conditions and mandates of Canadian law, not just what consulate wants," he said. "But if our request doesn't work as it is, because they don't care or whatever reason, we need to ask Canadian authorities to get involved and apply to law as it should be."

Another key consideration is that bunkhouses were not designed with a pandemic in mind, according to Justine Taylor from Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.

"I think there's probably a lot to be learned from other sectors like long-term care and shelters, so we hope we can learn lessons from those sectors," she said.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, said he offered recommendations to various levels of government.

Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers representative Justine Taylor says bunkhouses were not designed with pandemics in mind and the sector should considering looking toward others for ideas on how to improve worker safety in close quarters. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"COVID-19 is highlighting these socio-determinants of health in a bigger way," he said. "We need to take a two-prong approach, one in short-term and then all lessons can be applied in terms of moving forward for long-term solutions."

One of those recommendations included having a centralized location where workers can safely self-isolate with access to food, water, a communication device and a place for health-care workers can monitor them. 

Starting Monday, the City of Windsor said it will make its Isolation and Recovery Centre available for Essex County farm workers. The facility was originally established for COVID-positive homeless people.

Ford says he won't force workers to get tested

During the province's daily media conference Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said while there's no denying that migrant workers have been infected, the numbers are still low when compared to the total number of workers.

"If you look at the overall percentage, there's 11,000 in total, 8,000 in Windsor-Essex," said Ford. "There are outbreaks in certain areas ... We're sending inspectors in there."

"But nothing beats the cooperation of the farmers and the workers. I can't force anyone to go get tested. We need their cooperation. They're working hard and we look forward to see more people getting tested. The testing is right in the heart of the growing area."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he offered his condolences to Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for the two temporary workers who haved died due to COVID-19 in Canada — as officials in southwestern Ontario coordinate an approach to slow the spread of the virus among the vulnerable sector.

In his daily press briefing Tuesday, Trudeau said he spoke with the president "a few days ago," adding he will make sure to follow up on what happened to those individuals, and ensure safety for all workers. 

"We know that there are many issues from living conditions to the fact that they are tied individually to particular companies or employers, to various challenges around labour standards that require looking at," he said, adding this time of crisis is a good one to reflect on how we treat these workers. 

WATCH | Trudeau says he spoke to Mexico's president regarding temporary foreign workers:

Trudeau on working conditions for temporary foreign workers

1 year ago
Mexico has stopped sending temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to Canada due to concerns about the rapid spread of COVID-19 among workers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he spoke with Mexico's president to offer condolences, adding that the government will follow up to find out what happened. He says the government can look into giving TFWs more rights. 1:33

The two men — one died this month and the other in late May — were employed by different farms in the Windsor and Essex County area of Ontario.

In a tweet posted Monday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed he spoke with Trudeau for more than half an hour yesterday afternoon.

"There are about 10,000 Mexican workers in Canada with visas — with COVID, just over 300 were infected. And unfortunately two passed away," said Obrador, whose comments have been translated into English by CBC News.

"He transmitted his sympathies and condolences. We also spoke about the economic relations, the free trade deal that is coming into force July 1. We agreed to speak later. They are really good — the relations with Canada. I believe it's one of the best relationships we have in terms of friendship, commercial and economic."

The major outbreaks seen in the region are behind Ontario Premier Doug Ford's decision not to allow Windsor-Essex to move into Stage 2 of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says his country still has a great relationship with Canada. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

In response to the pause on migrant workers being sent to Canada, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the federal government is working with the province of Ontario to ensure "the conditions in which temporary foreign workers live" do not harm their health.

"I think all Canadians need to take that obligation very, very seriously," said Freeland, adding employers need to take that obligation seriously as well.

"It's really important that these workers, like everybody working in Canada, live and work in safe and healthy conditions ... We're very grateful for the partnership and collaboration with the government of Mexico."