Advocates critical of Ontario plan to control COVID-19 on farms

The head of a migrant worker advocacy group is criticizing the Ontario government's new three-point plan designed to address concerns about COVID-19 in the agri-farm sector, comparing the initiative to a 'death warrant.'

Temporary foreign workers' plan announced as Windsor-Essex moves toward reopening

Migrant worker rights advocates like Syed Hussan, left, and Vasanthi Venkatesh, right, say the province's new plan doesn't introduce major changes. (CBC News)

The head of a migrant worker advocacy group is criticizing the Ontario government's new three-point plan to stop COVID-19 outbreaks on farms, saying it doesn't address key issues.

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the plan really boils down to one point, whereby workers who are positive for the disease but showing no symptoms will continue working. 

"They are treating migrants as expendable," Hussan said. "This is dehumanizing, it's debilitating. You would not allow your father, your son, your brother, your mother, your sister, your daughter to be treated like this."

The provincial plan announced Wednesday is comprised of the following:

  • Ongoing and expanded on-site testing.
  • Access to employment benefits and supports.
  • New public health guidance allowing asymptomatic employees to continue working.


But Hussan said the testing is not new and the point about employment benefits is misleading, pointing out that the Ontario Labour Ministry excludes agricultural workers from minimum wage, overtime pay and days off, among others. 

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) in a Wednesday media release, said the government plan also means any workers who test positive for COVID-19 will not lose their jobs while in quarantine, nor will sick migrant workers be sent home. 

To date, approximately 475 agri-farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 across 27 farms in Leamington and Kingsville. The majority of employees who have tested positive have been migrant workers, two of whom have died in Windsor-Essex after contracting COVID-19. 

They are treating migrants as expendable.- Syed Hussan, Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Vasanthi Venkatesh, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law — as well as the director of the school's Migrant Worker Clinic and a member of the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group, was critical of the province's new plan, largely because it doesn't address the real problem: Migrant worker labour rights.

"The conditions in the farms is not new," Venkatesh said. "It's just the COVID-19 infections that we're seeing as exposing the unsafe ... conditions that the migrant workers have always worked under."

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Venkatesh said that until meaningful measures are introduced to protect the rights of migrant workers, the province's response to the pandemic will be "ineffectual."

"What I'm talking about would be the crammed bunkhouses … long, long work hours without overtime pay or sick leave, hazardous conditions of work, no access to medical care, no access to the Employment Standards Act and other labour protections that other sectors have, working at high levels of precarity where they're reliant on the farmers for everything," she said. 

And though Venkatesh also said that some worker protections already exist under Ontario law, she said that workers often worry about negative repercussions — namely losing their jobs and their livelihoods — if they speak out about unsafe conditions.

Leamington farm operator welcomes news of three-point plan

For his part, Peter Quiring, president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms in Leamington, said the province's new plan is "fantastic."

"I was personally working with Doug Ford and Ontario health on this, as well as many others," he said. 

"We really like the conclusions that we've come to. We think this is going to work well."

Peter Quiring is the president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Quiring said isolating asymptomatic workers on farms and "the fact that we can keep working" is the most important part of the new plan.

"Obviously if people have symptoms, they will be quarantined separately and given proper medical attention," he said. "Clearly that's very important and everybody understands that."

Quiring added that he's not concerned that asymptomatic workers will transmit COVID-19 to other employees, "because we're distancing."

"For the most part, the workers are far apart," he said. "They're basically hundreds of feet apart, not six feet. So you can't transmit the disease over [that] kind of distance, so I'm not concerned about it at all."

In its Wednesday media release, the OFA also expressed support for the province's new plan.

"The OFA is confident the government's action plan will result in a positive outcome that will enable the last two communities in the province — Leamington and Kingsville — to move to Stage 2 of the province's plan for re-opening and reduce the risk for Ontario farm workers," reads an excerpt from the media release.

Municipal officials react to province's plan

Though Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos expressed disappointment that his community is currently one of only two across the province prohibited from moving toward Stage 2 reopenings, he nonetheless said that the three-point plan "is something that will bring the need to change our conversations."

In terms of next steps, Santos said his community is in the process of laying the groundwork in the event that confirmed COVID-19 case numbers escalate.

Nelson Santos is the Mayor of Kingsville. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"We're preparing to be in the picture for isolation centres if that's what's needed, we've identified locations in our community that can help serve that," he said. "We're working with Leamington on that, we're working with Windsor."

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens also commented on the province's new plan, saying that — combined with migrant worker testing and the creation of isolation and recovery spaces — the plan "is going to help chart that course and lays the foundation for Leamington and Kingsville to recover as well."

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens 'welcomed' the news that the city could enter Stage 2 of reopening but he said he'll continue to do what he can to support Leamington and Kingsville. (City of Windsor)

Dilkens said he plans on speaking with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday "about necessary changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and what the federal government should do to protect migrant workers."

Additionally, Windsor's mayor — as well as local health officials, including Windsor Regional Hospital president and CEO David Musyj — will be meeting on Friday with federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu "as part of a working group to navigate the ongoing crisis within the migrant worker community."


  • A previous version of this story said that Syed Hussan agreed with a government assertion that temporary foreign workers are entitled to the same benefits and protections as any other worker in Ontario. In fact, Hussan says agricultural workers are not afforded many of the same rights as other workers in the province.
    Jun 25, 2020 2:55 PM ET

With files from Sameer Chhabra, Jennifer La Grassa and Jason Viau