Kingsville tomato, bean processor to start voluntary, on-site COVID-19 testing

Sun-Brite Foods employs approximately 135 full-time and roughly a dozen part-time employees — including five migrant workers from Mexico. Another 12 migrant workers are currently completing a two-week self-isolation period and are set to begin working this week. 

There have been no confirmed coronavirus cases at Sun-Brite Foods

Sun-Brite Foods cans tomatoes, sauces and beans for Primo and Unico. The company also supplies sauces to Domino's Pizza locations across Canada. (Jason Viau/CBC)

A major tomato and bean processor in Kingsville is set to launch voluntary, on-site COVID-19 testing for all employees, just as soon as the final number of employees interested in being tested has been collected. 

Sun-Brite Foods currently employs approximately 135 full-time and a dozen part-time employees — including five migrant workers from Mexico. Another 12 migrant workers are currently completing a two-week self-isolation period and are set to begin working this week. 

Lou Macera, manager of corporate human resources with Sun-Brite Foods, Unico and Primo, said his organization is working with Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to set up an on-site testing pilot program. 

"We definitely stepped up to the plate and said, 'We're not afraid of anything, we're here, we want to be tested,'" Macera said. "We're allowing the individuals to have peace of mind to work and to feel that they're safe."

Lou Macera is manager of corporate human resources for Sun-Brite Foods. (Jason Viau/CBC)

According to Macera, between 35 and 40 Sun-Brite employees have already signed up to participate in the on-site testing program once it launches. 

"Once we determine the final number of employees, [on-site testing can start] probably within the next two weeks," he said, adding that he believes Sun-Brite Foods is currently the first organization in Ontario to conduct on-site testing. 

"There have been other plants … that have voluntarily brought their employees to the testing centres."

To date, approximately 350 migrant workers in Windsor-Essex have tested positive for COVID-19, with additional cases being reported everyday. 

No employees at Sun-Brite Foods have tested positive. 

Mexican government concerned about migrant worker welfare amid pandemic

In early June, two Windsor-Essex migrant workers from Mexico died as a result of coronavirus which prompted the country's government to temporarily halt the influx of migrant workers to Canada on Monday.

Despite the statement made on behalf of the Mexican government by the country's ambassador to Canada, the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture told the Canadian Press that his organization has been informed that the halt only applies to farms with active COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Sam Lopez — plant manager at Sun-Brite Foods in Kingsville — said news of the halt is "uneasy and concerning."

"We hope that the [federal] government in conjunction with the Mexican government … [can] smooth things over and give them a sense of comfort that we are doing what we can to keep them safe," Lopez said. 

Sam Lopez is plant manager at Sun-Brite Foods in Kingsville. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Sun-Brite Foods cans tomatoes, sauces and beans for Primo and Unico, and also supplies sauces to Domino's Pizza locations across Canada. 

The processor's harvest season starts in August and runs until October.

According to Macera, the company relies on migrant workers to ensure a smooth and productive harvest season.

"[The] real consequence would be no tomatoes and cans," he said. "The farmers … their fields would have to be turned under. We would have no products for next year and we would rely on outside tomatoes for the Canadian market."

Macera explained that his company expects to employ approximately 150 migrant workers this year, with roughly 130 employees previously scheduled to arrive in late July. 

Migrant workers being asked to remain on-site

In the meantime, Macera said that migrant workers are being told that it's recommended they remain on-site, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He described accommodations as being "basically like a hotel."

"We're actually having all their food catered," Macera said. "We're having their shopping catered and their banking as well."

Lopez said the facility has also installed shields to separate workstations, implemented physical distancing training, set up additional sanitizing stations, provided additional personal protective equipment including face shields and conducts daily temperature checks each morning to protect against COVID-19. 

Chris Ramsaroop with Justice for Migrant Workers says migrant workers shouldn't be treated differently than Canadian employees. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

For his part, Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group, said he's heard of "multiple other farms and greenhouses" where migrant workers are being asked to stay on-site. 

"It's outrageous and it's [angering] that migrant workers are going to be treated very differently from the Canadian workers that also work side-by-side with these migrant workers at these different farms and greenhouses," Ramsaroop said. "It's a racial, differential treatment that these migrant workers are [facing] as opposed to the Canadians."

Additionally, Ramsaroop said migrant workers shouldn't be stigmatized or targeted when it comes to voluntary COVID-19 testing. 

"Are we going to be testing Canadian workers? Are we going to be testing other people in the supply chain, or just simply the migrant workers?" He said. 

"Everybody in the farm should have availability towards testing."

With files from Sameer Chhabra and Jason Viau


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