Ontario to ramp up farm inspections as migrant workers arrive for new season of work

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the inspectors would be starting ahead of the arrival of many temporary foreign workers who work on the provinces greenhouses and farms.

Advocates say it's 'too little, too late'

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.
The provincial government said 200 inspectors will be going to farms to ensure workers are safe. (CBC News)

The Ontario government says it will be ramping up inspections on farms as part of an effort to protect temporary foreign workers from COVID-19.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the inspections would be starting ahead of the arrival of many of the thousands of employees who work at greenhouses and farms throughout the province. However, hundreds have already arrived, with the County of Essex alone saying 600-700 migrant workers are already here.

But a migrant worker advocate says it's "too little, too late." 

Karen Cocq, projects and campaigns coordinator for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said more inspections won't actually improve the situation. 

"It's not going to change the systems and the rules that created this situation of extreme vulnerability for workers in the first place," she said.

According to McNaughton, who made the announcement at a press conference Wednesday, 200 people have been trained to conduct the inspections and the provincial government has accepted an offer from the Mexican Consulate to assist with Spanish translation.

"We'll talk directly to workers about any concerns they have," McNaughton said.

A man in a suit speaks at a press conference.
Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, announced $3.6 million in funding to help train more women and young people to work as construction workers. (Richard Lautens/The Canadian Press)

In addition, inspectors will also be looking for adherence to public health protocols such as hand-washing, physical distancing and use of personal protective equipment, he said.

Penalities range from issuing orders to laying charges, with the maximum charge at $1.5 million for a corporation and $100,000 for an individual, along with the possibility of a 12 month prison sentence. 

The announcement comes amid concern over the safety of migrant workers as the province experiences a second wave of COVID-19 that is much bigger than the first.

Advocates for the workers have expressed concerns that a crisis could occur in the sector this year as it did in 2020.

Cocq said the government should have been more proactive with these inspections and that it's unclear how they were to truly know how a workplace is operating if the inspections are being done ahead of when migrant workers arrive. 

"If inspections are being done before workers arrive, I don't know how the government is going to know whether or if enough PPE is being provided," she said. 

"I don't know how the government is going to know if enough space is being provided in the workplace ... the fact of inspections, especially if they come with  a fairly minor slap on the wrist, in and of themselves are not going to change this problem." 

Instead, Cocq said the government needs to consider giving migrant workers the same rights and protections as other workers in the province. But under temporary immigration status, she said that's not possible. 

Last year, 12 per cent were infected with COVID-19, McNaughton said. Three people died.

The situation sparked a national response, and shone a spotlight on the treatment and rights of temporary foreign workers in Canada.

One of the key concerns was the congregate living conditions of the workers given that COVID-19 spreads easily within  close quarters. 

McNaughton said that worker housing is not within the scope of the labour ministry's farm inspections but would be tackled by the federal government in partnership with local public health.

Leamington mayor voices isolation concerns 

There are currently 13 outbreaks in the agrifarm sector in Windsor-Essex, seven in Leamington and six in Kingsville.

Earlier this week, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald expressed concern about oversight of workers are who are completing their 14-day quarantine period after arriving in the region.

MacDonald, along  with the mayors of Kingsville and Tecumseh, say inadequate co-ordination and communication have left local authorities uncertain as to who is responsible for overseeing the workers during their quarantine. 

Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said at the press conference that representatives of many different areas and levels of government came together as a committee last year to respond to the outbreaks within the migrant worker population.

"That worked very well and we intend to very much keep that going," he said.

To date, 1,000 inspections of agriculture workplaces have been completed and 98 per cent reported no illnesses after their inspections, according to McNaughton.

"This means that preventative measures are working," he said.