Only a few days after the heartbreaking death of essential worker 31-year-old Mexican Bonifacio Romero, a second young migrant farmworker has died from COVID-19 in the Windsor-Essex region. Nearly one-fifth of confirmed cases in the area have been agricultural workers, local and migrant. As pointed out by local MPP Taras Natyshak (NDP—Essex) in the Legislative Assembly, migrant farm workers are now at the epicentre of this outbreak and deserve the same protections as other workers around the province with “access to PPE; the ability to self-isolate; clean, affordable—and accessible living standards… ”
By the beginning of June over 240 migrant workers in farms across Ontario had tested positive for the virus, with outbreaks reported also in Chatham-Kent, Niagara Region, Elgin County, and Haldimand-Norfolk County. As of May 29, the Workplace and Safety Insurance Board statistics on COVID-19 claims from the agricultural sector recorded 55 claims allowed, <5 denied and 51 pending. An April 2020 open letter by Justice for Migrant Workers urged additional action by the Board to help ensure migrant farmworkers’ access to WSIB benefits during the pandemic.
Arriving healthy, leaving sick (and injured)
With proper pre-screening and a mandatory 14-days quarantine these workers in general came healthy and caught COVID-19 here. Speaking of the Niagara outbreak, the region’s acting medical officer of health noted in the Globe and Mail (June 3) that migrant workers contracted coronavirus from the community, with living in close quarters and difficulty maintaining physical distancing at work additional factors. A recently released report by occupational health scientist Donald Cole details the heightened COVID-19 risks to temporary foreign agricultural workers (TFAW) and provides recommended actions on infection prevention and support.
Worker advocates, including Legal Assistance of Windsor’s Shelley Gilbert, note that COVID-19 highlights problems that have long existed within the TFAW Program with many migrant workers tied to a single employer, and precarious immigration status which can make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Unions and activist groups have been sounding the alarm for many years, calling for greater migrant protections to deal with longstanding issues including workers’ access to information on employment and safety rights and services, and inadequate enforcement of decent workplace and housing conditions.
As with systemic problems in Ontario’s long-term care system, those resulting from inadequate regulatory protection for migrant workers are well-known and well documented. Premier Ford said Monday that the province will ramp up testing for thousands of migrant workers across the province.
Much more action is needed and now.
Event: to join the launch of Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change report Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada on Monday June 8 at 12:00 noon register on Zoom at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_je1CgEvLRPCEcO-Z3T_rSg
(Updated and corrected Jun 12)
- Keung, Nicholas. 2020 Jun. 8. “Migrant farm workers ‘in crisis’ amid pandemic, report says.” Toronto Star
- Schmidt, Doug. 2020 Jun. 5. “‘Heartbroken’ — Farm worker’s death sparks calls for tighter safety enforcement.” Windsor Star
- Hennebry, Jenna et al. 2020 Jun. 3. “Coronavirus: Canada stigmatizes, jeopardizes essential migrant workers.” The Conversation
- Grant, Tavia & Kathryn Blaze Baum. 2020 Jun. 3. “Ontario farms struggle to contain COVID-19 as migrant workers test positive.” Globe and Mail
- Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group. 2020 Jun.1. Recommendations for Overcoming Health Challenges Faced Migrant Agricultural Workers during the COVID-19-Virus Pandemic
- CBC News: Windsor. 2020 May 30. “Advocates for migrant workers push for more rights during pandemic.”
- Matz, Callie. 2020 May 15. “Migrant workers in Canada’s food industry: beyond COVID-19.” Canadian Law of Work Forum
- Mojtahedzadeh, Sara. 2020 May 11. “A study urged better standards for migrant workers’ housing. Nothing was done. Now COVID-19 has struck.” Toronto Star
- Haley, Ella et al. 2020 May 1. “Migrant farmers face heightened vulnerabilities during COVID-19.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems & Community Development 9(3)
- Justice for Migrant Workers. 2020 Apr. 17. “Open letter to Workplace Safety Insurance Board regarding COVID19, workers compensation and migrant farm workers (Ontario).” Harvesting Freedom
- Mojtehedzadeh, Sara. 2020 Apr. 13. “Migrant farm workers from Jamaica are being forced to sign COVID-19 waivers.” Toronto Star
- Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW). 2020. Temporary Foreign Agricultural Workers and COVID 19 Safety Guidance & Resources.
- Agriculture Workers Alliance – Facebook
- Justice For Migrant Workers, JM4W – Facebook