Migrant worker advocate calls recent actions 'Band-Aid' solutions for 'gushing wound'

A migrant worker advocate says governments need to do more for the sector as it deals with a surge in COVID-19 cases, calling the most recent actions taken "bandaids" for a "gushing wound." 

Health unit says more isolation space available for workers

Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with the group Justice for Migrant Workers. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

A migrant worker advocate says governments need to do more for the sector as it deals with a surge in COVID-19 cases, calling the most recent actions taken "Band-Aids" for a "gushing wound." 

Last week, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) issued a letter ordering employers to cancel, suspend or postpone the arrival of temporary foreign workers to the region between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1. At the time, it said the region had few isolation spaces left for the increasing number of migrant workers who were testing positive or waiting a test result. 

But two days later — on Friday evening — it rescinded the order and noted that more support had been put in place. 

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers, told CBC News Monday that all of this has been "concerning." 

"The pandemic continues to be rife and it continues to disproportionately impact migrant agriculture workers because no steps have been taken to improve living or working conditions on the farms. Neither the provincial or federal government have stepped up to the plate to protect workers," he said. 

In the next few weeks, Ramsaroop said another 2,000 workers are expected to arrive in the region. Public health officials estimate that 2,000 workers are already in Windsor-Essex. 

As of Thursday, there were 66 cases of COVID-19 among workers and another 173 in isolation, according to WECHU. 

In an interview with CBC News, WECHU CEO Nicole Dupuis said this is an issue the health unit was on top of. 

"We have been flagging it for quiet some time that there is a need ... and without increasing that need or responding to it we would get to a point of crisis," she said. 

Nicole Dupuis, CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, says the issue was one officials had been flagging. She says while they can't predict what will happen, they're hoping the extra space and resources will help keep the situation under control. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

According to Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, 50 new isolation and recovery spaces should have been made available on the weekend and more will be added. 

But the health unit said there is 300 more spaces that will be made available. While Dupuis said the health unit can't predict whether these resources will be enough, she said they based these spaces off of the outbreaks that took place in 2020. 

Yet, Ramsaroop said he is worried that workers are still not being fully supported. 

"I'm concerned with what's happened throughout this pandemic," he said. "There's been no steps taken to protect workers, none whatsoever." 

He called inspections on farms a "sham" and referenced the auditor general report that says the federal government failed to protect migrant workers from the pandemic.

Some immediate steps that Ramsaroop said would be helpful for workers include paid sick days, strengthening anti-reprisal measures against workers who are sick or speak out about work conditions and proactive inspections that take workers testimony into account. He also wants to see improved living conditions so that there is one worker to a room and they aren't sharing common spaces with dozens of others. 

Since the pandemic began, the federal government has announced funding for the agriculture sector on several occasions. 

In July 2020, $58.6 million was promised to improve housing conditions, increase inspections on farms, create assessment teams and develop a liaison officer position to work with consulates from countries who supply temporary foreign workers to Canada. 

Last year, the government allotted even more funding to support community organizations that will develop migrant worker-centric programs and services, increase employer inspections and ensure good working conditions and wages. 

The province also created a $36.6 million program last year, with $10 million set aside for 2022, to help farmers access personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning and change workstations to better protect employees. 


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