Migrant advocacy group demands Ontario shut down agricultural sector amid COVID-19 spike

Advocacy organization Justice for Migrant Workers is calling for an immediate shutdown of Ontario's entire agricultural industry until every workplace is fully sterilized to stop the spread of COVID-19 among its workers. 

'This fiasco has to end,' says organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers

Health officials say many temporary foreign workers in Canada may be hesitant to access public health care because of cultural differences or fear they may not get paid.
An advocacy group is calling for an immediate shutdown of the agricultural sector in Ontario, after the Windsor-Essex area saw a significant spike of new COVID-19 cases among farm workers over the weekend. (CBC News)

The advocacy organization, Justice for Migrant Workers, is calling for an immediate shutdown of Ontario's entire agricultural industry until every workplace is fully sterilized to stop the spread of COVID-19 among its workers.

"This is racism," said Justice for Migrant Workers organizer Chris Ramsaroop. "This fiasco has to end." 

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 1,000 agri-farm workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across the province, according to Ramsaroop. Data compiled by CBC News show that more than 670 have tested positive across farms in Windsor-Essex, Ont.

Windsor-Essex saw its largest spikes of new COVID-19 cases on Sunday and Monday. Of the new cases, 196 involved workers in the agri-farm sector. Two temporary foreign workers from Mexico have died in the region after testing positive for COVID-19. A third migrant worker on a farm near Simcoe, Ont., also died after contracting the disease. 

Ramsaroop's group demands immediate action from all levels of government to ensure that the appropriate health and safety standards are put in place. 

"There's no way in hell we can continue this and to see the numbers skyrocket like this. This is outrageous," he said. 

Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers says COVID-19 in the agricultural industry is beyond being a crisis at this time and they want to see immediate action taken. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

In a media statement, Justice for Migrant Workers included the following demands of the provincial and federal governments:

  • Workers get full access to all benefits, health care and application of all labour standards to which Canadian workers are entitled.
  • Non-discriminatory testing across the community and food chain.
  • Workers testing positive must get the benefits of full quarantine even if they are asymptomatic. 
  • Permanent residence status is given to all workers with temporary or undocumented status.

Chatham-Kent-Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls said he doesn't agree with the comments made by Justice for Migrant Workers.

"You shut down that entire industry then you're shutting down food supply, you're killing economic business," Nicholls said. "We deal with facts, not just emotions and [Justice for Migrant Workers's] comments are purely emotional." 

He said he spoke with some greenhouse growers who said they will allow asymptomatic workers to all work together in a separate area so that they cannot spread the virus to someone who has tested negative.

WATCH | MPP Rick Nicholls responds to demand that farms be shut down:

Chatham-Kent-Leamington MPP reacts to migrant advocacy group's demands

3 years ago
Duration 0:48
Chatham-Kent-Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls says he doesn't agree with Justice For Migrant Workers' call to shut down the province's agricultural sector in order to get COVID-19 cases under control.

Mixed information about asymptomatic workers 

As of Sunday evening, Ramsaroop said they were informed that asymptomatic migrant workers, who are in the middle of quarantine, are being asked to go back to work, yet the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has said those that have tested positive are self-isolating before returning. 

"As of now, all positive individuals are self-isolating until we do the interview and have a good understanding of their symptoms and how it could spread," said the county's medical health officer, Dr. Wajid Ahmed. 

Of the workers who tested positive In Windsor-Essex over the weekend, Ahmed said nearly all of them were asymptomatic. He predicts that many of them may have contracted the disease up to 90 days ago, which would mean they are not symptomatic now but could have been at the onset. However, health officials will have to interview each positive individual to determine if they are truly asymptomatic, how they may have contracted the virus, and possibly how long ago. 

According to Ontario's three-point plan to stop the spread of the virus on farms, those who are COVID-19 positive but asymptomatic are allowed to continue working on farms "as long as they follow the public health measures in their workplace to minimize the risk of transmission to others."

WATCH | Ontario's health minister addresses who can return to work:

Health Minister Christine Elliott talks about asymptomatic testing

3 years ago
Duration 0:35
Elliott says some workers who are asymptomatic can go back to work.

During a Monday news conference, Health Minister Christine Elliott said they have sent in a team to one farm, with more than 100 positive cases among its workers, to provide full medical examinations. 

"We only want the people who are well, who are feeling well — they're positive but they are truly asymptomatic — to be going back to work," Elliott said. 

The medical examinations are to ensure that asymptomatic workers are truly not displaying any symptoms, she added. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the teams sent to farms in Windsor-Essex include interpreters, public health officials and investigators. 

"We're going to make sure we're doing everything in our power to resolve these cases as quickly as possible," Ford said.

Ford also said he spoke with the mayors of Leamington and Kingsville over the weekend, both of whom are "doing a great job."

Other health units in Ontario have come to Windsor-Essex Monday to help with these investigations, said Ahmed, as the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit team has been inundated with the workload. 

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said the Red Cross is also coming to help, and that after speaking with provincial and federal officials over the weekend, military assistance is also "on the table."

In an emailed statement to CBC, the Canadian Red Cross said it is working closely with provincial and municipal authorities to identify the needs of migrant workers in Windsor-Essex.

"Discussions are ongoing," the statement reads. "As always, the Red Cross is ready to assist."