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Workers perform maintenance duties at the Scotlynn Group, where 164 have tested positive for COVID-19, near Vittoria, Ont., on June 3, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario is changing tack in its efforts to contain outbreaks among migrant farm workers, releasing new public-health guidelines aimed at encouraging employers to co-operate with mass testing without fear of losing their workforce to self-isolation.

Asymptomatic employees, including migrant workers, who test positive for COVID-19 will now be allowed to continue working, under certain conditions, including that they keep their distance from those who tested negative.

Premier Doug Ford announced the guidelines Wednesday at a news conference outlining the province’s latest plan to tackle outbreaks that have infected more than 600 migrant farm workers in Ontario. Three men from Mexico have died. The guidelines apply to other jobs, such as park rangers, if specific criteria are met – for example, the work is done primarily outdoors or with minimal interaction with others.

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Previous testing initiatives have so far failed to reach the majority of the 8,000 migrant workers employed at farms in Southwestern Ontario. Roughly 1,500 had been swabbed, whether at an assessment centre or on the farm by a mobile testing unit. About 10 per cent of results that have come back so far were positive. The situation in Leamington and Kingsville is so worrisome that while the rest of the province advances to the next stage of reopening, the two communities in the heart of the growing region must wait.

The new guidance was criticized by advocates who say the government is prioritizing the labour needs of farmers above the health of workers. Too much trust, they say, is being put in employers who, in some cases, violate safety regulations and exploit their workers. Canada’s agriculture system, which is heavily reliant on foreign labour, has come under heightened scrutiny. Ottawa has promised to overhaul the temporary foreign worker program to better protect foreign nationals and empower them to come forward with complaints without fear of reprisal.

Ross Moncur, chief of staff and interim CEO of Leamington’s Erie Shores HealthCare hospital, which has been leading the region’s testing effort, said Wednesday’s announcement was designed to get better buy-in from farmers. Employers, he said, had been reluctant to send their workers to an assessment centre or invite mobile testing units to their properties because it could mean a slew of asymptomatic workers testing positive.

Farmers feared their work force would have to self-isolate and their crops would rot. “I think this is designed to be a compromise to tackle this problem without crippling the industry,” Dr. Moncur said.

Under the protocol, employers are responsible for ensuring that asymptomatic workers who test positive are grouped together and kept separate from those who test negative. Bunkhouse accommodations, which are commonly provided by agri-food employers under the TFW program, should house positive cases or negative cases, but not both. Previously, workers who tested positive were told to isolate.

“The devil will be in the details,” Dr. Moncur said, adding that there’s a difference between toiling on open farm land and in a contained greenhouse. “Some of these people won’t be able to isolate and work at the same time. … They’re working at a factory, where the factory is a greenhouse.”

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said in some cases, people who do not show symptoms but who test positive might be shedding dead virus that is not infectious. He said farms should cohort workers into positive and negative groups, including when it comes to living accommodations and eating quarters.

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“We would retest [workers who test positive] within 48 hours, and if any develop signs or symptoms, you would have to deal with them as possible cases,” Dr. Williams said at Wednesday’s news conference.

A Globe and Mail investigation into farm outbreaks published last week exposed myriad factors that made migrant farm workers vulnerable to the virus: overrun accommodations, including some that housed ill and healthy workers, supervisors putting pressure on symptomatic labourers to keep working, threats of deportation if strict productivity targets weren’t met and lack of personal protective equipment.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Ontario Ministry of Labour inspectors have audited more than 300 farms and issued 79 orders to improve conditions. However, the ministry is not responsible for housing inspections. That responsibility falls to local public-health units and the federal government, which manages the TFW program. It is unclear how the province will ensure that employers are abiding by the new guidelines, particularly when it comes to accommodations.

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the strategy for asymptomatic workers who test positive illustrates how foreign workers are mistreated in Canada. “I’m horrified,” he said. “Enraged. Literally in tears about how worthless migrant lives are in this country.”

Susana Caxaj, a University of Western Ontario assistant professor and a co-ordinator with the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, said the guidelines are not in the best interest of workers, especially given that their status in the country is often tied to their status with their employer.

“It contributes to the notion that workers don’t get to decide for themselves whether it’s safe for them to work,” she said. “Many workers already fear having to work with others who test positive, or having to work themselves if they test positive.”

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In an interview before the province’s announcement, Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the Premier needs to take more aggressive action against negligent employers, including shutting them down. “It would certainly send a message,” he said.

The congress sent a letter to federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough on Wednesday, recommending a slew of changes to the TFW program, including guaranteed paid sick leave and more paths to permanent residency.

“We cannot afford to squander this opportunity to soberly and systematically confront the deficiencies of Canada’s migrant worker programs,” the letter said. “Not only will workers’ lives be enriched, but Canada’s food security and long-term prosperity will benefit.”

With a report from Laura Stone in Toronto

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