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Workers do maintenance at the Scotlynn Group near Vittoria, Ont., in Norfolk County on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Agriculture employers in several provinces are restricting the movement of migrant farm workers during the pandemic.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Agriculture employers in several provinces are restricting the movement of migrant farm workers during the pandemic, raising questions about the rights of temporary foreign workers who in some cases aren’t allowed to leave the premises, even to get groceries.

In an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19 at agri-food operations, some employers are asking workers to sign agreements or conform to rules confining them to the property. Under the federal temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, employers often provide seasonal farm staff with on-site accommodations, which can include bunkhouses, trailers and sheds.

Some employees said they have not ventured off the grounds for several months, forgoing grocery runs, church services, medical appointments and visits with spouses and children who live in Canada year-round.

Workers told The Globe that they feel pressure to abide by the employer-imposed restrictions because their status in the country is tied to their status on the farm. The Globe is not identifying them because they fear workplace reprisal and deportation. Where possible, The Globe reviewed the contracts and letters pertaining to restrictions and terminations during the pandemic period.

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A Jamaican man who works on an Ontario vegetable farm said he felt he had no choice but to sign a form saying that he voluntarily wouldn’t leave the premises to buy groceries. The form, which the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change advocacy group said is being widely used by employers, states that the worker agrees that the employer or a service will arrange food delivery to the farm.

It says that although the worker has the choice to buy their own groceries, they have made the decision not to do so “in the best interest of my own health and those that I may interact with in a public setting.” Grocery costs, the form says, will be deducted from paycheques.

For the past two months, the man hasn’t gone grocery shopping, attended church or visited family in Toronto. He said he is confined to the crops by day and a bunkhouse without air conditioning by night. “We don’t deserve this,” he said, adding that he believes he is being overcharged for food.

“We can’t speak out. It’s like shackles around our feet. We cannot say nothing, because we want to come back.” He said access to permanent-resident status would help level the playing field by empowering workers to defend their rights.

The structure of the TFW program has long drawn criticism for enabling power imbalances between farm operators and their workers. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem and exposed the poor working and living conditions that some migrant workers face as they support the Canadian food system. In Ontario alone, more than 1,300 migrant farm workers have been infected with COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail survey of local public-health units.

Medical officials stress that the workers contracted the virus locally. The situation is especially grave in Windsor-Essex, which is not moving to the next phase of reopening as the virus continues to spread in the Kingsville and Leamington growing regions.

Fay Faraday, a Toronto-based labour and human-rights lawyer, said the restrictions of movement on workers this year are unprecedented and “feed into systemic racism that positions them as a threat,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is a really broad imposition of control. This goes so far beyond what is required in terms of social distancing.”

There’s nothing in the law, she said, that gives farm employers the ability to impose stricter conditions of public-safety measures on their employees during their off-work hours.

The pandemic-related restrictions, which were described to The Globe by workers, advocates and farmers in Ontario, B.C. and Nova Scotia, are a symptom of the pressure on employers to both ensure the success of their harvest and the well-being of their workers. Mid-season disruptions caused by labour shortages due to COVID-19 could lead to rotten crops and significant economic losses.

In addition, employers are getting advice from local public-health units, which in some regions say that workers should avoid going into town as much as possible.

Approximately 37,000 temporary foreign workers have already arrived in Canada to work on farms; an additional 14,000 are expected to come before the end of the year, with around half heading for Ontario. Harvests are looming for many key crops destined for Canadian tables, from field tomatoes to apples and squash.

None of the provincial health ministries in B.C., Ontario or Nova Scotia have issued restrictions on the ability of temporary foreign workers to leave the farm premises if there is no outbreak or specific isolation order in place.

In Nova Scotia, a single mother supporting two daughters back home in Jamaica – said she has been restricted, through a verbal order, from leaving the strawberry farm where she works. “If we have a day off, then we want to go to town to get something to bring back for our children back home,” the woman said.

She said her employer is “more aggressive” this year, using racial slurs and threatening to send workers back home if they speak up about conditions on the farm or pandemic-related rules.

A worker in B.C. told The Globe that he’s not allowed to leave the farm, and has been paying his employer for groceries at what he believes to be double the cost. “This year, they’re not letting us out from the farm to go shop for ourselves and they also don’t let any visitors come see us, including officials who used to come and check on us,” said the worker, who is from Mexico.

“Those restrictions are supposedly due to COVID-19, and yet we live very cramped in these very small trailers.”

Javier Robles, a migrant-support outreach worker at Kelowna Community Resources in B.C., said he takes Walmart orders for employees, and then drops off boxes in the middle of the road just outside the premises; when supervisors aren’t looking, he said, the migrant workers run to get the deliveries and leave cash on the road.

Mr. Robles said he has spoken with many workers this year, particularly those at larger operations, who say they’re required to stay on the premises and cannot have visitors. “They feel frustrated because they see the news that everybody is going to the beach, everybody is trying to have a normal life, but they’re not allowed,” Mr. Robles said.

In West Kelowna, two seasonal agriculture workers from Mexico were fired for breaching restrictions on their movement and having visitors after a community volunteer dropped off some work clothes and culturally appropriate food for them.

The Globe reached out to three large farms in the Kelowna area to ask about their policies; one declined to comment, and one did not respond. Bylands Nurseries, which employed the two workers who were fired for breaking COVID-19-related rules, said that due to the pandemic it is taking “additional precautions” for its staff living in company accommodations.

The company, which experienced an outbreak in late March, said it provides grocery services to workers and transportation to any medical appointments. Regarding the workers who were terminated, Bylands says it dismissed them after “multiple infractions, following orientation on the workplace policies and warnings about leaving the premises.”

In accordance with the terms of the seasonal agriculture worker program, the company alerted the Mexican consulate of the terminations. Amy Cohen, the volunteer and advocate who dropped off the clothes and food to the workers, said the pair have since been deported.

Jenn Pfenning, co-owner of Pfenning Organic Vegetables Inc. in New Hamburg, Ont., said that while the farm’s 35 Jamaican workers are not prohibited from leaving the premises, she can understand, to some degree, the logic for imposing restrictions aimed at mitigating pandemic-related risk.

“This is what happens when you have a program that sets employers up to be responsible for every aspect of the workers’ lives in a parental fashion,” said Ms. Pfenning, the chair of the National Farmers Union migrant worker subcommittee.

“Farmers are worried about protecting their workers’ health and well-being from a personal and business perspective. Sick workers can’t work. Unfortunately, that creates a human-rights issue.”

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