Experts concerned about asymptomatic migrant workers being allowed on the job
Worker well-being and legal rights an issue under Ontario's 3-point plan
Health and legal experts have expressed concern over Ontario's three-point plan to combat COVID-19 in the agricultural sector, specifically when it comes to allowing COVID-19 positive, asymptomatic employees to continue working.
Under the new plan announced Wednesday, the government is allowing workers who are positive for COVID-19, but not showing symptoms, to work together in fields, away from other employees. Premier Doug Ford also announced expanded on-farm testing and access to employment benefits for temporary foreign workers as part of this plan.
"In general, certainly on face value, having people who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, allowing them to work is of course generally speaking a bad idea," said Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infectious disease physician with the University Health Network in Toronto. "I think the details are very important to determine here."
Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, previously said agriculture workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 but show no symptoms will be allowed to work and live with other people who meet those same conditions.
Vaisman, however, said the safest thing to do would be for workers to wait 14 days until returning to the job to ensure they are not developing symptoms and cannot transmit the virus to other people.
Vasanthi Venkatesh, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law — as well as the director of the school's Migrant Worker Clinic and a member of the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group — said she's concerned about the physical and mental health of migrant workers in the region's agri-farm sector, as well as their legal rights.
"Can you imagine if Canadians workers in any other sector are told that they'll have to work, even if they are diagnosed positive?" she said.
"Asymptomatic workers can be carriers, and yet here we are, allowing and even perhaps compelling asymptomatic, racialized, vulnerable workers to get back to work."
Venkatesh suggested that the province's plan could even infringe on workers' access to compensation benefits, "as the migrant worker will not have the right to refuse work, because public health has deemed it safe for the migrant worker to work, even if they are diagnosed positive."
"If public health has deemed it a safe environment for asymptomatic workers, then they will not get loss of earnings if they refuse to work, because it will now be deemed that they can get this alternative work by just continuing to work in the workplace with the positive diagnosis," she said.
Venkatesh also raised the point that rules allowing positive asymptomatic employees to continue working could set a precedent for low-income Canadians in other fields.
"If it is okay for farm workers, it will soon be okay for any worker," she said. "And on the other hand, if it is only on migrant farm workers, then it is discriminatory and racist."
To date, more than 475 agricultural workers in Windsor-Essex have tested positive for COVID-19. The majority of employees who have tested positive have been migrant workers, two of whom have died in Windsor-Essex after contracting COVID-19.
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is currently working with federal officials to inspect bunkhouses this week, and has offered both short-term and long-term reccomendations on how to improve things such as housing.
With files from Jason Viau