Advocates for migrant workers push for more rights during pandemic

Justice for Migrant Workers is calling for action on what it calls serious health and safety concerns at farm operations in Essex County.

'It's horrifying, cold conditions. No one deserves this'

Chris Ramsaroop says the conditions seen in the viral video are just one example of the health and safety issues existing at different facilities in Essex County. (Jason Viau/CBC)

A video posted on Facebook shows several mattresses lying on pallets on a floor in what appears to be a warehouse.

The mattresses are spaced apart to comply with physical distancing, but a group that represents migrant workers points to it as one example of serious health and safety concerns at farm operations in Essex County.

"It's horrifying, cold conditions. No one deserves this," said Chris Ramsaroop, Organizer for Justice for Migrant Farm Workers.

The video was released as many of the recent coronavirus cases in the Windsor-Essex region are linked to the agriculture sector.

The farm's lawyer said it was inspected and approved by Leamington Fire and Rescue and the region's health unit, adding that workers sleeping in the conditions have not complained.

"Furthermore the accommodations have been seen and approved by the Eastern Caribbean Liaison Service for foreign workers in Canada," writes James Cooke, lawyer for Cervini Farms in Leamington.

Cooke writes accommodations are temporary and the workers will be moving back to their permanent living quarters once their quarantine period is up.

Video of these living conditions at Cervini Farms in Leamington, Ont., for temporary foreign workers on social media. (Chris Ramsaroop)

But Ramsaroop said this is one example of the many health and safety issues that exist at different facilities in Essex County.

He also alleges, in some operations, there is a lack of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, adding some who have tested positive are living with people who have not.

"They're scared, confused, angry, wondering why more steps aren't taken," said Ramsaroop, adding he wants the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to do more to protect workers.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant farm workers have complained about crowded housing, the threat of deportation, racism and harassment.

"We are doing all the 'D' jobs — the dirty jobs, the dangerous jobs, the difficult jobs. We do non-unionized jobs. Do we have a voice? Do we have representation? Or is that a recipe for exploitation?" said Gabriel Alladua, a former migrant farm worker.

He adds farm workers are intimidated because the employer has so much power, having control over their travel in and out of the country.

He left the farm he was working at in 2015 because of all of those issues and the fear and hopelessness, he said, came along with it.

Gabriel Alladua says farm workers were intimidated because their employers had so much power over their travel in and out of the country. (Jason Viau/CBC)

When it comes to the COVID-19 related issues, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) — which holds the power to revoke licenses — said there are many checks and balances that deal with compliance. Those include unannounced inspections by the Ministry of Labour.

"The allegation for workers who tested positive are living in the same housing as those who have not -- all actions as a result of a positive identification are directed by the local health unit. The described situation would seem highly unlikely to align with any public health direction," said Justine Taylor, science and government relations manager for the OGVG.

Justice for Migrant Workers sent its list of concerns to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit calling for action.

This region's medical officer of health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, said his inspectors attend these farms to review the accomodations and they return to ensure anyone who tests positive is isolating appropriately.

with files from Jason Viau