Forty migrant farm workers sharing a single shower; healthy and ill people living in the same bunkhouse; no pay for COVID-19 quarantine, despite federal rules that say foreign workers must be compensated during the mandatory 14-day isolation period; a lack of translation or interpreters, even when workers were being treated for the virus in intensive care; and crowded housing that smelled of dog urine.
A report to be released Monday by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) details complaints levelled on behalf of 1,162 migrant workers – the majority of them in Ontario – since the onslaught of the pandemic.
The migrant worker rights group, along with health experts, say governments of all levels must immediately ramp up health and safety protections for migrant farm workers, with calls mounting in urgency after a second COVID-19-related death of a young farm worker in Ontario: Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, died on Friday.
In Ontario, more than 420 migrant farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19 across at least six farm operations, according to a Globe and Mail count, based on information from local public-health units. The cases bring to light another hotspot in the province, and are sparking concerns about living and working conditions among some of the country’s most vulnerable workers.
Mr. Santos was “a hard-working, honest and loving boy, whose only dream was to support his parents in getting out of debt,” a post in a GoFundMe campaign said.
His death comes less than a week after another worker from Mexico, 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, died after self-isolating in a hotel room. Having trouble breathing, he called an ambulance and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The two men are the youngest to die in the Windsor region after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Wajid Ahmed, the Medical Officer of Health for Windsor-Essex County, stressed that the cases among migrant workers occurred after they completed a mandatory 14-day quarantine following their arrival in Canada. This, he said in an interview Sunday, means “any transmission that they’re getting is through community acquisition, or through contacts of other confirmed cases. ... The risk is not from the people who are coming in." Living at close quarters is one of the factors of why the outbreaks have grown, he added.
The Windsor Regional Hospital announced on the weekend a mass testing in the coming weeks, with a goal of taking samples from all 8,000 migrant workers in the region.
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 advocates have been sounding the alarm on working and living conditions in the sector for decades. COVID-19 has brought those concerns into stark relief, underscoring the need for better enforcement of rules and regulations around housing, compensation, occupational safety and health-care coverage.
Some employers, Mr. Escobar said, care far more about productivity than the safety and well-being of their staff. “We think that all workers should be respected and have dignity, no matter where they come from or what their immigration status is,” he said. Mr. Escobar said he has been in touch with Mr. Santos’s family and is assisting with efforts to repatriate the young man’s body. He said Mr. Santos came to Canada from Mexico in February.
The report to be released Monday says governments have long been warned that poor conditions, coupled with temporary status in Canada, pose a threat to workers’ health. “Migrant workers have been treated as expendable and exploitable – and essential, all at the same time,” said Syed Hussan, the MWAC’s executive director.
The alliance heard from workers who lamented the fact that they don’t have permanent resident status, which they said makes it challenging to assert their rights or access adequate health-care services. Workers also said they are worried that getting the virus will lead to a loss of income and could affect their ability to stay in Canada.
More than 200 workers reported increased intimidation, surveillance and threats from employers “often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols,” the report said. Private security guards “were posted at bunkhouses and workers told they would be turned over to the police for failing to follow employer orders.”
The report contains 17 recommendations, including the creation of a national housing standard, unannounced inspections of farm operations, and a mandatory suspension of work at pandemic-hit farms if the environment cannot be properly adapted to protect employees. The report also says migrant workers should be granted permanent resident status upon arrival in Canada – a move that would better enable workers to leave abusive employers and find new jobs, and provide access to most social benefits that citizens receive.
The situation for migrant workers in Canada has grown so dire amid the pandemic that a countrywide group of researchers and experts in infection control and occupational health struck a working group in April to provide guidance to various levels of government. In a statement Friday, before Mr. Santos’s death was known, the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group called Mr. Romero’s death “avoidable” and said his case is emblematic of long-standing problems in the agri-food sector.
“We ask that federal and provincial agencies, and public-health units, address the larger barriers faced by this population,” Wilfrid Laurier University associate professor Jenna Hennebry said. “We are growing impatient.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.