When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the annual flow of farm labour into Canada hung in the balance.
Farmers feared that border closings and grounded planes would prevent agricultural workers, coming from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, from reaching their fields and greenhouses in time for the seeding season. Knowing this, Ottawa allowed entry of temporary foreign workers critical to the food system.
Conditions – including a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival – were put in place to protect Canadians. But advocates and health officials say not enough was done to protect the workers themselves.
In interviews, farm workers detailed the myriad reasons that COVID-19 has infiltrated farms with such success: a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), an information vacuum and pressure to work, despite symptoms. In one instance, a feverish worker developed chest pains and a nosebleed that dripped on the vegetables he tended; he said his supervisors refused to take him home until the shift was over. Photos, videos and interviews portrayed overrun bunkhouses with broken toilets and stoves, cockroach and bed-bug infestations, and holes in the ceiling.
Rules were rolled out, but they weren’t adequately enforced and failed to consider what life on a farm is actually like for a migrant worker. Ottawa requires that farms, which generally provide housing under the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, ensure that accommodations allow physical distancing during the initial quarantine period.
But what happened after those 14 days was a massive blind spot. After isolating, workers often move into the bunkhouses, where they share bathrooms and kitchens and climb atop one another to get into bed. As former migrant worker Gabriel Allahdua put it, conditions in farm accommodations are a “recipe for COVID-19 to spread like wildfire.”
In Ontario alone, more than 600 foreign farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail count; health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the workers came to Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have also recorded outbreaks among migrant agri-food workers.
The situation is most dire in Southwestern Ontario, home to the continent’s highest concentration of greenhouses. Ontario’s largest outbreak is at Scotlynn Group, where at least 167 of 216 migrant workers have tested positive. Mexico has become so concerned by the outbreaks that Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho told The Globe that his country has “put a pause” on sending more workers – 5,000 more are still due to make the trip – until Canadian officials ramp up monitoring of health and safety rules, and ensure workers are paid while in isolation.
Two of Mr. Gomez Camacho’s countrymen have already died. Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, left their loved ones in Mexico to earn a better living. Their families are now planning the young men’s funerals. Mr. Eugenio Romero and Mr. Munoz Santos died – on May 30 and June 5, respectively – after testing positive for COVID-19. Their final days were spent mostly in hotel rooms, mostly alone.
“For a 24-year-old to die of this is beyond tragic,” said David Musyj, president and chief executive of Windsor Regional Hospital, where Mr. Munoz Santos died. “It should not happen. Just because he was from Mexico, I don’t give a damn. He was my son’s age. He was in Canada. And we should be taking care of him.” Mr. Munoz Santos is one of the youngest people in Canada to die from COVID-19-related causes. Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner is investigating both deaths and will decide whether to launch the province’s first inquest into a migrant worker fatality.
The federal government has the power to conduct pro-active inspections of farm accommodations, but during a six-week period at the height of the pandemic, these audits stopped. They are now being done virtually. The provinces are responsible for occupational health and safety, but in Ontario at least, the Ministry of Labour does not inspect employer-provided accommodations. Local public-health units in the province typically inspect farm bunkhouses once or twice a year, but this is done before workers arrive; an empty space looks markedly different from one with dozens of occupants.
In Canada, advocates and community health care workers for months warned federal and provincial politicians, as well as local public-health officials, that migrant workers were at a heightened risk. In letters, e-mails and conference calls, they asked for a number of measures, including increased funding for public-health units to ensure adequate housing inspections and limits on the number of people using each bathroom in bunkhouses. While some action was taken, many people say help came too little, too late. And advocates worry that unless enforcement and public-health outreach kick into high gear, there are lives and livelihoods at stake, along with the potential for disruption to the food system.
To understand what went so wrong, The Globe interviewed seven migrant workers across four farm operations, at times through a translator, as well as employers, advocates, academics, hospital executives, former migrant workers, doctors, lawyers and industry associations. The Globe reviewed four immigration files detailing allegations of employers who did little or nothing to protect workers. Migrant workers’ identities are being concealed because of privacy concerns and fears of reprisals.
The investigation revealed that problems in an already broken system have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The experiences of workers varied, with some describing decent housing and respectful bosses who have worked hard to keep them healthy. Others spoke of racism and recounted threats of termination or deportation if they didn’t meet stringent productivity quotas.
Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), said there is a massive disconnect at play. “Migrant workers,” he said, “have been treated as expendable and exploitable – and essential, all at the same time.”
In March, a van carrying eight people left Toronto for Leamington, Ont., the tomato capital of Canada. One passenger told The Globe that the ride was arranged by a recruiter; the recruiter, who had met a friend of his on Facebook, promised them decent housing and a fair wage for farm work in the area. Instead, the passenger said, the group arrived in town to an unfinished basement that smelled of septic waste.
He said he refused the apartment and the recruiter arranged a room at the Sun Parlour Motel. About a week later, Mr. Munoz Santos joined him in Room 17; for the next several weeks, the room would house four men who shared two beds and one bathroom. He described Mr. Munoz Santos as quiet and shy – a “sometimes funny” guy who kept in touch with his family. The two men had something in common: They entered the country as tourists, and did not have permits to work.
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The agriculture sector employs approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers each year, with upward of 10,000 of them in Windsor-Essex county, which includes Leamington. Under the TFW program, foreign nationals are allowed to work for a particular employer for a set amount of time. Some stay for several months, others are here year-round. There are also foreigners who work in the country unauthorized; according to some estimates, Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants.
Mr. Munoz Santos’s roommate said the recruiter arranged for him and Mr. Munoz Santos to work at Greenhill Produce, in the Chatham-Kent region. The pepper greenhouse has had at least 98 cases of COVID-19, and is the subject of multiple complaints outlined in a recent MWAC report. He said the recruiter skimmed the men’s wages, charged them inflated rent and paid them in cash.
Greenhill declined The Globe’s request for comment. (The company previously released a statement addressing concerns posted online by an anonymous employee, who alleged Greenhill did not do enough to prevent transmission. The company said it was working closely with public-health authorities, and that it was continuing to pay workers and provide them with adequate supplies.)
In the early days of the pandemic, testing and staffing resources were being directed to hospitals and then long-term care and retirement homes. The number of COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers “didn’t really ramp up to the point where it was ringing alarm bells that were louder than the bells that were ringing in long-term care,” said Ross Moncur, the chief of staff and interim CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare, the Leamington hospital where Mr. Munoz Santos was initially treated. “For a while, the numbers were fairly controlled. And then, they weren’t.”
At the end of March, the Medical Officer of Health for the region of Haldimand-Norfolk, southwest of Toronto, took a precaution that angered employers: Shanker Nesathurai required that during the initial quarantine, a maximum of three people could live in a bunkhouse. To Brett Schuyler, of Simcoe’s Schuyler Farms, the limit was arbitrary and nonsensical. One of the farm’s bunkhouses is built to house four people but another can accommodate 40. The apple and cherry farm challenged the rule before the province’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board. (The Globe spoke with three Schuyler employees, all of whom described good working and living conditions.)
At a recent hearing into the matter, Dr. Nesathurai said it would be extremely hard, if not impossible, for more than three workers to keep a proper distance, even in a large bunkhouse. The board concluded that the occupancy cap doesn’t take into account a bunkhouse’s specifics. The limit was struck; employers must ensure workers are able to keep a safe distance, but there is no longer a quarantine cap. (Outside the isolation period, housing standards vary by municipality.)
Come April, a community health executive in Windsor-Essex County was growing increasingly concerned. Claudia den Boer, who is part of the province’s team overseeing the pandemic response, was aware of a cluster of cases on a farm in Chatham-Kent; it was only a matter of time, she thought, before her region would see the same. She asked the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to create a crisis-management plan while there was still time. Among her questions was who, exactly, would make sure the health of isolated workers was properly monitored?
By this point, there were already confirmed cases among migrant workers in Southwestern Ontario; Woodside Greenhouses, the Kingsville pepper farm where Mr. Eugenio Romero was employed, was among the response team’s top farms of concern. Windsor-Essex’s Medical Officer of Health, Wajid Ahmed, assured Ms. den Boer that the unit had been working with the community for a couple of months already. Ms. den Boer was still worried; she knew that some employers didn’t take good care of their workers. In an interview Monday, Dr. Ahmed said migrant workers are still a priority population for the health unit.
Ms. den Boer wishes she had pressed harder for an outbreak plan. “Hindsight is 20/20,” she said.
‘THEY TREATED US LIKE ANIMALS'
In late April, a group of Mexican workers emerged from quarantine and headed into the fields of Scotlynn Group, a major Norfolk county operation that grows corn, watermelons, pumpkins and asparagus. When they were joined by employees who lived off-site, the workers started to get sick.
The Globe spoke with three Scotlynn workers, all of whom tested positive and were isolating in hotel rooms at the time of the interviews. They described overcrowded living conditions, including small bedrooms with multiple sets of bunk beds; ill workers living with healthy ones; leaky toilets, and showers that only ran hot water; an absence of information on how to access health care; and no PPE to guard against the virus.
“We notified supervisors when people were falling ill and they didn’t do anything,” one worker said. “They treated us like animals.” A second worker said employees were not provided with PPE and believes the outbreak could have been prevented had supervisors been more responsive. The third worker said his mental health is deteriorating. “I feel trapped in the hotel room.”
Scott Biddle, president and CEO of Scotlynn Group, said in an interview the farm’s accommodations are well above standards. He said the farm, which accepted federal funding to assist with the costs associated with the mandatory quarantine period, equipped workers with masks and gloves. As for accusations that supervisors pressed employees to work with symptoms, Mr. Biddle said that’s not the case. “There would be no advantage to us not to tend to a sick worker," he said.
There are rules and guidelines for Scotlynn Group and others to follow. According to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) guidelines, an employer must immediately isolate a symptomatic worker, providing a private bedroom and private bathroom. Employers must also alert local public-health officials of suspected or confirmed cases. Provincial guidance, which applies to workplaces and not housing, says “if the risk of COVID-19 cannot be sufficiently reduced by other methods, PPE may be required." (Last week, Ontario announced $15-million in funding for agri-food employers to purchase PPE and redesign workspaces to facilitate physical distancing.)
Other farms are facing allegations of poor living and working conditions. Between March 1 and May 29, ESDC received 29 COVID-19-related complaints regarding the TFW program in the agriculture and food-processing sector. Over the same period, the department conducted 585 inspections related to the program (all inspections are now done virtually or remotely, the ESDC says). Between March 11 and June 10, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour received 57 COVID-19-related complaints in the agriculture sector; three were made against Ontario Plants Propagation, where at least 20 migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19. During that same period, the Ministry of Labour conducted 177 inspections; 55 were done remotely. The province said it has issued 56 compliance orders in the agriculture sector, including to Woodside. No farms have been issued a stop-work order.
Santiago Escobar, a co-ordinator with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, which operates under the United Food and Commercial Workers union and represents migrant workers, said the alliance has fielded more than 100 calls from concerned workers since March. In the past two months, he has also helped process two dozen applications for open work permits – a type of authorization, launched by the federal government last year, that gives temporary foreign workers the freedom to leave abusive employers and find jobs elsewhere.
Most of the applications to the immigration department were filed by people working at Kapital Produce, in Ruthven, Ont. Two of the applications – which were approved by Ottawa and reviewed by The Globe – described a cockroach-infested three-bedroom, two-bathroom bunkhouse for 19 people. Other allegations included: threats and racist comments from a supervisor; deductions from paycheques for expenses not agreed to; and a lack of PPE. Kapital did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of deadline.
By early May, Mr. Munoz Santos and his roommate developed fevers and went to the Erie Shores hospital. The roommate said the clerk at the emergency department hesitated to help them when they said they did not have health insurance. They pleaded, he said, and they were both tested. Mr. Munoz Santos was admitted, while the roommate, whose symptoms were less severe, was released. (The roommate said he tested positive and moved into another room to isolate.)
Dr. Moncur said the hospital provides care to anyone who walks through the door, regardless of their immigration status. “In theory, if you don’t have coverage, you might get billed for private care,” he said. The roommate said the hospital sent him a $600 bill at Greenhill, where he was working. Dr. Moncur said Erie Shores is realistic about a person’s ability to pay such fees.
Mr. Munoz Santos spent most of his final days at the hospital, his body doing its best to fight off the virus, despite underlying health conditions, including anemia. By the time the 24-year-old was transferred to the Windsor hospital for a higher level of care, he was in and out of consciousness. The nursing team knew they should alert his family. They tried to use his phone to figure out who to call, but it had run out of battery and they couldn’t find a charger that fit. Hospital staff ultimately got through to his mother with the help of the Mexican consulate.
Mr. Munoz Santos’s roommate believes his friend’s fear of deportation, inability to speak English and unfamiliarity with the Canadian health care system made him especially vulnerable. Mr. Munoz Santos, he said, was initially apprehensive about getting help and was worried about the cost. He already owed his father for a hospital stay in Mexico; he had come to Canada to pay off his debt. “I feel very bad,” said the roommate, who left Leamington looking for a job. “I wonder if I could have helped him more.”
At a daily temperature check before starting his shift on May 21 at Woodside Greenhouses, Mr. Eugenio Romero registered a fever. The facility’s director of human resources, Steve Laurie, drove the young man to the local hospital to get tested for COVID-19. Few words were exchanged from behind their masks – Mr. Eugenio Romero didn’t speak English – but Mr. Laurie could tell he was worried. Mr. Eugenio Romero moved out of the large bunkhouse he shared with 21 others and into a hotel to self-isolate. Two days later, he was told he had the virus.
Mr. Laurie said he checked on Mr. Eugenio Romero every day. Accompanied by a translator, the men spoke at a distance through a screened door. Public-health officials also monitored Mr. Eugenio Romero’s condition by phone. Workers who came into contact with him were swabbed and isolated. Two tested positive and have since recovered, Mr. Laurie said.
He said the bunkhouse passed public-health inspection and had been approved for 32 people; it has one large bathroom with four toilets, two urinals, four showers and eight sinks. Mr. Laurie said the company provided masks and sanitizer, and circulated COVID-19 communications in three languages, including Spanish, beginning in March. “We’re farmers. We’re not the devil,” he said. “But just like anything else, I’m sure there are some bad apples.”
On Saturday, May 30, Mr. Eugenio Romero had trouble breathing and called for an ambulance. He had already passed before paramedics arrived; he was pronounced dead at the Erie Shores hospital. He was his family’s sole breadwinner; his widow is grieving in Puebla, Mexico. “[The death] was a call to action for all of us," Dr. Moncur said.
That weekend, Dr. Moncur’s phone lit up with calls, texts and e-mails from health professionals determined to keep this from happening again. By Monday, Erie Shores was sending outreach teams – each with at least one Spanish speaker – to check on infected workers isolating in hotels and bunkhouses.
During their visits, the teams kept hearing that the workers believed there were far more cases than anyone knew. Erie Shores already had an assessment centre attached to the hospital, but workers weren’t going there in any large numbers. Dr. Moncur said there are multiple reasons for this, including language barriers, a lack of transportation and long work hours.
On June 9, the gymnasium at the Nature Fresh Farms Recreation Centre in Leamington was converted into a mass-testing and assessment centre. Stickers on the pavement outside the centre advise people to “respeto a la distancia fisica” and remain two metres apart. Mr. Musyj, the president and CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital, said one woman at the centre asked him last week if her undocumented friends could come for testing, too. “I said, ‘We’re not an immigration service,'” he recounted. “'Please bring them.'”
In the short term, advocates are calling for a significant increase in the enforcement of existing rules, particularly through unannounced, in-person inspections. In the long term, they are calling for a national housing standard for migrant farm workers, greater access to open work permits and pathways to permanent residency.
The federal government said it is considering further steps to keep migrant workers safe. “We recognize there is more to do to protect temporary foreign workers in this country,” the office of Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said in an e-mailed statement. "The reported cases of inappropriate behaviours and unsafe working conditions are completely unacceptable. “
Some of the workers interviewed for this story have been able to leave unsafe situations and find new jobs. Others are sick and hotel-bound, eager to start making money again. “Workers depend on this income; they have lots of costs and families they need to support," one of the Scotlynn workers said. "It’s not their fault that they got sick. ... We’re asking for support to get through the illness.”
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