Migrant worker says he was fired from Ontario farm, faced deportation after voicing COVID-19 fears
In June, 199 of 218 workers at Scotlynn Farms tested positive for COVID-19
A migrant worker says he was unfairly fired from Scotlynn Farms in southwestern Ontario and threatened with deportation after speaking out about the conditions on the farm following the death of his bunkmate from COVID-19.
Luis Gabriel Flores Flores told The Current guest host Mark Kelley through a Migrant Workers Alliance (MWA) translator that he was targeted by Robert Biddle, the father of farm owner Scott Biddle, for being suspected of anonymously speaking to the media following the death of Juan Lopez Chaparro in June.
"He was someone who was quiet, he came here for the same reason as all of us did, for the well-being of his family. He was a very good person," Flores said.
"We were very, very sad, but at the same time we were also very frustrated because they could have prevented this if they had taken the appropriate measures."
Scott Biddle, owner of Scotlynn Group, says Flores's accusations are false and that he was "definitely not fired for speaking to the media," but had voluntarily requested to leave the farm.
"I have no idea why [Flores] would make such allegations," Biddle told Kelley.
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"He didn't feel safe on the farm after the pandemic had happened here on our farm. He had a sick family member back in Mexico and requested to go back … as soon as possible."
Flores said Biddles's comment about him voluntarily wanting to leave was a "lie."
Biddle added that Flores was "mistaken" about being yelled at by his father because he "doesn't even work for the company."
"My father says he's never spoken to this gentleman or had any interaction with him."
199 workers test positive
Lopez Chaparro was the third migrant worker to die of COVID-19 in Ontario. The province's farms have struggled to prevent outbreaks, with more than 1,000 agricultural workers being diagnosed with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers.
At Scotlynn Farms, located about 75 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, Ont., 199 of 218 workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Flores was among them.
He blamed the farm's cramped living conditions — up to 13 people per bunkhouse, poor communication from management and a lack of protective equipment — as factors in the farm's outbreak.
"They didn't realize that there were people getting very sick because they don't even talk to us. We have to tell the foreman that we were getting sick and they just ignored us," Flores said. "Since we arrived in Canada they never gave us any [personal protective equipment], neither they gave it to us when we went to the farm."
Flores arrived in Canada for his fourth season of work in Canada on April 18. He completed two weeks of quarantine in a provided hotel as required. This was his first year of employment at Scotlynn Farms as a vegetable harvester and picker.
Biddles says that Flores allegations that workers weren't provided PPE was false. He said each employee was explained all the "precautionary measures" that needed to be taken on the farm, and that they were given protective equipment upon arrival.
Calls for better protections
Flores is calling on the Minister of Immigration Marco Mendicino to give migrant workers full immigration status and better protections from employer reprisals when they denounce conditions.
"This system that is being used is not the appropriate one. We have been always complaining and they have always ignored them. We complain about bad working conditions. And in my case, I don't think I did anything wrong," he said.
Mendicino declined an interview request from The Current. In a statement, the minister said workers can apply for open work permits if they're being mistreated, which allows them to look for new work.
Sharaf Sultan, principal at Sultan Lawyers, which represents both employers and employees in immigration matters, said that from a legal framework perspective, everything "exists in theory" to protect migrant workers.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act is one of these provisions, which safeguards the wellbeing of foreign workers, particularly in the agricultural sector, Sultan said.
"The issue is that foreign workers, particularly those working seasonally, feel vulnerable," he said. "They have a sense that if they speak out, that they may actually, regardless of the legal framework, not be protected. And frankly, they may not know a lot about their legal protections."
Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Julie Crysler. With files from CBC News.