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Greenhouses at a farm near Leamington, Ont. About 275 of the estimated 2,000 agricultural migrant workers currently in the Windsor-Essex area are now in isolation due to COVID-19.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A temporary ban on the arrival of migrant workers in Canada’s greenhouse-growing capital is touching off another wave of warnings about the potential for food shortages – and highlighting the challenge of balancing worker safety and food security.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit in Ontario announced this week a decision to halt the arrival of migrant workers in the region for the next three weeks, after a quick escalation of COVID-19 outbreaks among agricultural labourers in recent days. Vegetable farmers in the region say the decision will have catastrophic effects on the industry and on food supplies across the country.

“The burden of COVID-19 among the migrant farm worker community at the current time exceeds the community resources to manage the appropriate and compassionate response,” the county’s acting medical officer of health, Shanker Nesathurai, told reporters this week.

About 275 of the estimated 2,000 agricultural migrant workers currently in the Windsor-Essex area are now in isolation either because they were diagnosed with COVID-19 or because they had close contact with infected people.

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One of the main reasons for the pause on new arrivals is that there is simply nowhere left for workers to quarantine. The federally funded isolation and recovery centre for migrant farm workers in Windsor is full, and overflow capacity at local hotels is already saturated, Dr. Nesathurai said.

Just a month ago, a scathing report from the federal Auditor-General said Ottawa failed to protect migrant workers from the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. The federal Minister of Employment, Carla Qualtrough, pledged to do better.

Still, Santiago Escobar, a national representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said little has changed since the outset of the pandemic. He said the UFCW fields dozens of complaints each week from migrant agricultural workers concerned about living conditions and inadequate COVID-19 protocols. The majority of those complaints come from the Windsor-Essex region, he added.

“We wonder why the health unit has to implement these restrictions,” Mr. Escobar said. “That means employers aren’t doing enough.”

In an e-mail, Ms. Qualtrough’s office said Ottawa is working with the provinces and territories, as well as the governments of labour-source countries, to ensure the “safe and timely” entry of temporary foreign workers into Canada. Preparations are under way, for example, to transfer migrant workers to safe isolation sites outside the Windsor-Essex region, the e-mail said.

More broadly, Ms. Qualtrough’s office said, the government is taking steps to improve the quality of inspections of employer-provided housing under the temporary foreign worker program, including by rolling out supplementary training for inspectors and reducing backlogs. “Reforming this program is a priority for the government,” the office said.

Growers and some food policy researchers have said any additional government measures need to be weighed very carefully against the reality of widespread labour shortages in the food industry – and, ultimately, the need to maintain food security. There is already evidence that understaffing is having an effect on food supplies. For instance, Exceldor, a Quebec-based poultry company, announced last week it would have to begin euthanizing chickens at its plants, partly as a result of COVID-19 labour shortages.

“It’s not just about this situation. It’s everything. The vaccine mandate at the border. Everything, really. Omicron is just vitally hitting the entire food economy. I’m not sure it’s appreciated enough, both in Ottawa and across the country,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

Starting this weekend, a new rule will require all truck drivers crossing the border into Canada to be fully vaccinated. The move is expected to have an impact on the large amount of fresh produce that is imported from the U.S. every day.

“Yes, you want to protect the vulnerable and make sure to keep people safe. But at the same time, if our food security is compromised by these protocols, we need to figure something out here – a different approach,” Dr. Charlebois said.

Vegetable growers in the Windsor-Essex region echoed this.

“I’ve got every retailer in Canada right now calling me going, ‘What’s going on? Am I going to have product?’” said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, which represents about 220 growers in the province.

If the ban on new temporary foreign workers remains in place for the next few weeks, he said, there will likely be shortages of greenhouse vegetables across the country.

“If this is put in place for two weeks, you will have truly catastrophic situations for these people,” he said, referring to the farmers. “It wipes out months. It would break them.”

Gerry Mastronardi, a tomato farmer in Leamington, Ont., said the ban is coming right when labour is needed the most. “We’re right smack in the middle of moving our plants into our commercial operation, and this letter came out,” he said. His 21-acre farm welcomed 11 migrant workers from Mexico earlier this month, and was expecting 10 more workers over the next two weeks.

Without the additional workers, he said, he will not be able to adequately maintain over $300,000 in tomato plants that have already been planted. “These are living plants,” he said. “You cannot say, ‘We’re on strike. You can’t grow. We’ll come back in 10 days.’ It does not work that way.”

Many of those plants will have to be discarded, he said.

Mike von Massow, a professor of food economics at the University of Guelph, said he sympathizes with the challenge in front of policy makers.

“I’m very sympathetic to greenhouse producers who are being hurt,” he said. “But I find it very difficult to rationalize putting any group of people at risk of getting acutely sick and dying to maintain my access to nice tomatoes this time of year.”

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