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A barn stands near Peterborough, Ont., on Dec. 2, 2017. COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers on some Ontario farms have raised questions about safety measures.Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

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A growing number of migrant farm workers in Ontario are testing positive for COVID-19, turning agricultural workplaces into hot spots for outbreaks in a province that continues to see hundreds of new cases a day.

More than 240 migrant workers have tested positive in at least five Ontario farm operations, The Globe and Mail has found, raising questions about whether health and safety measures – and the testing of workers – on farms is adequate.

The cases include recent outbreaks at Scotlynn Group in Norfolk County, where at least 164 people, largely migrant workers, have tested positive, with seven in hospital, and Pioneer Flower Farms in St. Catharines, where most of the 20 confirmed cases are migrant workers. One worker in the Windsor area, a man in his thirties who is from Mexico, has died.

The outbreaks highlight how living and working conditions are putting workers, many of whom come from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, at risk, migrant rights groups say. Testing in Ontario, meantime, has not yet been widespread in workplaces with outbreaks, although the province says it is expanding efforts.

“I will definitely be addressing this with public health to make sure that we get all the migrant workers tested to keep them safe and the [food] supply chain safe,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a news conference this week.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour says there have been 51 COVID-19-related complaints in the agricultural sector since March 11, and 77 pro-active inspections.

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Earlier this week, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit released figures that underscore the extent to which the virus is spreading among migrant workers on farms. The southwestern Ontario region is home to a significant agricultural industry, employing more than 8,000 temporary foreign workers, according to the health unit. Of the 970 COVID-19 cases confirmed in the area as of Monday, 175 – nearly one-fifth – were among agricultural workers across 17 farms.

The figures include both foreign and local workers, but Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed made it clear that he is concerned about the rising numbers among migrant farmers – a demographic he described as a “challenging” and “vulnerable” population requiring interpretation services, both because of language barriers and cultural differences. In a virtual news conference Monday, Dr. Ahmed said the unit is not currently considering testing all migrant farm workers. Nurses may conduct assessments of isolated individuals in-person rather than by phone.

In the Niagara area, the recent cases on the flower farm were from local spread – not from travel, the region’s medical health officer emphasized – meaning migrant workers contracted the virus from the community. They had already completed a mandatory quarantine period and started working.

Any “suspicion that it might have been brought from elsewhere is absolutely not true in this situation,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for the Niagara region. “We believe this is infection that was acquired through people's interaction within the community.”

About three-quarters of staff have now been tested, and more results are pending, he said. “We’re unfortunately expecting there probably will be more cases here.”

Living in close quarters and difficulty maintaining physical distancing at work may have been factors, he added. Migrant rights groups say the outbreaks also reflect how cramped living conditions, a lack of oversight and a precarious job status are threatening workers’ health and safety.

“These are all long-standing issues that should have been dealt with decades ago,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture said farms are working to ensure the health and safety of migrant workers – if not for altruistic reasons than for economic ones. Many operations rely heavily on temporary foreign workers to carry out skilled, labour-intensive tasks that Canadians either don’t want to do or are not trained to do.

“This isn’t about where they came from,” said federation president Mary Robinson. “This is more about people within in Canada contracting COVID.”

Ms. Robinson said the virus’s toll on farm labour is causing serious disruptions, especially when it comes to one of the most physically gruelling phases of production: harvest. Scotlynn Group said on social media that despite attempts to boost staffing, the Norfolk operation cancelled Tuesday’s asparagus harvest. The company, which did not respond to a request for comment as of deadline, said harvest would resume in the “coming days.”

In an e-mailed statement, the federal government said it is aware of recent outbreaks and remains "committed to protecting Canadians and workers, including temporary foreign workers, through this pandemic,” said Marielle Hossack, spokesperson for Employment and Workforce Development Minister Carla Qualtrough.

In Windsor, Dr. Ahmed said the unit will continue carrying out inspections of bunkhouses and other locations on farms to ensure that physical distancing requirements set out by various authorities are being met. “Are we out of it?” he said, when asked whether he expects the curve to start to flatten for migrant farm workers. “I don’t know. But I would like to see that these measures are bringing a result. The numbers are adding up, and that’s concerning.”

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