Treatment of some farm workers ‘a national disgrace’: Minister
Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu was speaking to the special committee in the House of Commons following the death of the third migrant farmworker to die of COVID-19 on an Ontario farm. 55 year-old Juan Lopez Chaparro, a father of four, had been coming to Canada to work for a decade. He was one of more than 600 migrant workers to arrive healthy and become infected here in the local community. Of his co-workers at Scotlynn Growers, 199 have tested positive. As reported in the Toronto Star (Jun. 24), the Norfolk County farming operation has been the subject of multiple complaints to the Mexican Ministry of Labour on unsafe living conditions. The region was also the site in March of a Norfolk-Haldimand health protection order, supported by infectious disease experts, to limit the number of quarantining workers per bunkhouse. Ruling on an appeal by local farmers, the Health Services Appeal and Review Board quashed the public health unit’s protection order in June.
In the face of growing outbreaks, most recently in the Windsor-Essex region, the provincial and federal government have warned employers to protect migrant workers or face consequences (Global News, Jun. 22). In a new three-part plan, the province announced Wednesday that mobile testing units will be sent to farms and temporary foreign workers allowed access to employment benefits. Allowing COVID-19 positive, asymptomatic employees to continue working however drew concern from health and legal experts (CBC News, Jun. 26).
In a critique of the extreme power imbalance ignored for decades, columnist Bruce Arthur describes how Ontario is biting the hand that feeds us (Mississauga.com, Jun. 25).
“Workers’ care is mediated by employers,” says Dr. Susana Caxaj, part of the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group. “Who gets to decide who is asymptomatic or not? We keep making more rules, and making more suggestions, and sending more emails to employers, and that doesn’t translate to better working conditions, or living arrangements, for migrant workers.”
While the government says migrant workers have equal rights and access to benefits (Peterborough Examiner, Jun. 27), Janet McLaughlin, an associate professor of health studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, attests to the long struggle to get equal treatment, particularly in cases of injury and illness. She points to direct disincentives (in the form of increased premiums) for employers to report claims and difficulties for workers to independently access medical care when lacking transportation or translation services. Though The Toronto Star, based on local media reports, identified more than 800 COVID-19 cases among farm workers (including local employees), fewer than 400 workers’ compensation claims from the agricultural sector have been received by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
A dire need for race-based data
On June 15 the provincial government announced it would act on the advice of community leaders and public health experts who want race-based data collected on the COVID-19 pandemic. A proposed regulatory change would mandate collection by every health unit in Ontario in a consistent way while also protecting patient privacy. This follows an announcement by Statistics Canada, saying it recognizes that the social, economic and labour market impacts of COVID-19 have not been equally felt by all Canadians, that it is starting a pilot project to collect information on race and visible minority status as part of its monthly jobs report (Canadian Press, Jun. 11).
Denise Balkissoon in Maclean’s (Jun. 8) speaks to the need for better information on how Indigenous, Black and other racialized people interact with Canadian health-care systems: “endless surprise at evidence of racism is one of the most racist things about Canada, and sloppy data collection has long helped maintain plausible deniability ..” This need to end injustices hazardous to health is echoed by the Alliance for Healthier Communities in an April 10 open letter to the Premier, Minister of Health & Chief Medical Officer. The call for a health equity response that includes the collection and use of socioeconomic and race-based data is endorsed by 192 organizations and 1612 individuals.
Injured worker group Women of Inspiration, in an April 23 letter to WSIB President Tom Teahen, has asked the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to collect race-based statistics to better understand health disparities amongst Ontario’s injured workers within the racialized and black communities and to enable it to implement the care that is most appropriate for workers of different ethnic backgrounds. The Group emphasized also that, during the pandemic crisis, collecting race-based statistics on Covid-19 related claims is paramount.
Update on the WSIB & McIntyre Powder
It has taken a long, hard-fought campaign. The recognition by the WSIB that Parkinson’s is a direct result of occupational exposure by miners during the aluminum dust prophylaxis program was welcomed by United Steelworkers (USW) Ontario, which played a key role in the McIntyre Powder Project, led by Janice Martell with the participation of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers. This week the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board posted an update on its adjudicative approach to McIntyre Powder and Parkinson’s Disease claims (Jun. 23). This follows the release earlier of Dr Paul Demer’s March 2020 study on neurological outcomes.