Fears for worker and food safety mount for Ontario greenhouse under COVID-19 outbreak

The COVID-19 outbreak at a greenhouse in Chatham-Kent is "concerning," say advocates, who worry about the safety of workers during the pandemic and the farms' food supply.

47 staff at Greenhill Produce, mostly temporary foreign workers, test positive for COVID-19

Greenhill Produce, a greenhouse operation near Kent Bridge, Ont., is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

The COVID-19 outbreak at a greenhouse in Chatham-Kent is "concerning," say advocates, who worry about the safety of workers during the pandemic and the farms' food supply.

Chatham-Kent Public Health reported 47 workers at Greenhill Produce have tested positive for the disease, beginning with a local worker and eventually spreading mainly to migrant workers who have been in the country at least four months.

COVID-19 at Greenhill Produce at a glance

As of April 29, 45 migrant workers and two local workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at Greenhill Produce. 

Chatham-Kent Public Health is currently waiting on 24 tests for local workers and 13 tests for migrant workers. 

Of the local workers tested, 91 are negative for coronavirus. Of the migrant workers tested, 54 are negative. Three people are being retested. 

Additionally, 105 workers are isolated in bunkers, while 15 workers are isolated within the community. No one who has tested positive for COVID-19 is living with anyone who has tested negative. 

Chatham-Kent Public Health was made aware of COVID-19 at Greenhill Produce when six migrant workers arrived at the local assessment centre on April 21. The health unit tested all workers on April 23. 

The health unit has traced the source of infection to a local Chatham-Kent worker who showed signs of COVID-19 on April 8. 

Health officials say communal living and working conditions could have allowed the coronavirus to spread. Now that workers have tested positive for the disease, they are self-isolating in their bunk houses.

"Farm worker quarters are a recipe for disaster," said Chris Ramsaroop, with the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers. 

"Until we take steps to provide decent and affordable housing for farm workers, and not the cramped condition that currently exists, they're ripe for pandemics, and we have to start now to ensure that this doesn't happen to other bunk houses across Canada."

Ramsaroop said his organization has been pushing to have bunk houses changed for years now.

Workplace safety

Bunk houses, or some form of housing, must be provided by an employer for migrant workers under federal guidelines, explained Justine Taylor, the science and government relations manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, a non-profit that represents the industry. 

Taylor said housing is inspected every eight months by local health units. Many growers' housing units exceed federal standards, said Taylor.

Her organization has been working closely with farmers to ensure workers have adequate sleeping arrangements that maintain a two-metre distance. But the nature of communal living doesn't help in a pandemic. 

Migrant workers should be seen as essential workers,- Tanya Basok, University of Windsor professor

"I would say we are struggling with the same challenges other sectors face who make use of group housing such as shelters," said Taylor. "Even where social distancing is possible, in these residences the communal nature of the facility really encourages socialization and group interaction."

Taylor said her organization has worked to ensure greenhouses have "best practices" and current health recommendations at their disposal, like any large company would have. 

Meanwhile, with more than half of Greenhill's 250-person workforce currently in self-isolation, crops are also at stake.

Who will pick the peppers

Ontario farmers were concerned in early spring that they would not have the workforce necessary to harvest crops if temporary foreign workers would not be able to enter the country. 

Ontario relies on about 20,000 migrant workers for its farming industry. 

Now that the outbreak has hit Greenhill, approximately 800 tractor trailer loads of peppers could be at risk if there is no one to harvest them.

Greenhill Produce needs about 100 temporary workers to harvest their pepper crops, after many have fallen ill or have to self-isolate. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"They have a living crop that is ready to be harvested that needs attention within the next week," said Taylor. "So we've been really reaching out to various workforce organizations and community groups with the hopes that we can locate a short term workforce to care for the crop over the next three to five weeks."

About 100 short-term workers would be needed for packaging and shipping the supply, said Taylor, who is worried the stigma around the company may make it difficult to find workers. 

"Migrant workers should be seen as essential workers," said University of Windsor professor, Tanya Basok, whose research focuses on migration and migrant rights.

"Without migrant workers, we would not have enough food to get us through the summer and the fall or maybe even later."

Basok said these workers also put their lives on the line to do an "essential job" that many take for granted. 

Listen| Agricultural writer says farm workers have specialized skills that should be recognized:

It's an idea that Justice for Migrant Workers has been pushing for too — including a wage increase like the one announced for front-line workers

"There's fear, there's anxiety — We have to remember that the workers are coming to Canada to provide food for their families, and that is the prime reason for being here," said Ramsaroop. "They're concerned that they're not going to be able to provide for their families. They're worried about being sick, and the fear of the unknown that exists currently."

With files from Amy Dodge, Peter Duck, and Windsor Morning