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Migrant farm workers line up outside the Nature Fresh Farm Recreation Centre in Leamington, Ont., to get tested for COVID-19, on June 11, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario says a new approach is necessary to protect migrant farm workers from COVID-19, after initial efforts fell short in containing outbreaks that have hit farm bunkhouses and exposed a dark side of the Canadian food system.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province will likely roll out mobile-testing units to farms in Southwestern Ontario – a tactic the government believes may result in more widespread swabbing of migrant farm workers, who are vulnerable to the virus because of their living and working conditions. “It’s probably going to be some kind of a hybrid solution with an assessment centre, as well as having people go in mobile units from farm to farm,” Ms. Elliott said at the province’s daily briefing Wednesday afternoon.

There is already a mass-testing and assessment centre in the heart of the growing region, but the hospital managing the Leamington site announced Wednesday morning that it will cease operations this week because of low demand. The centre opened June 9 with the intent of testing upward of 8,000 migrant workers in the area, but it has so far tested fewer than 800. About 10 per cent tested positive.

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The 200 or so agri-food employers in the area have had the option of sending their workers to the centre by buses, provided by public-health officials and seated at half-capacity. Roughly 20 employers participated. The lower-than-expected uptake is the result of several challenges, including fears among employers that asymptomatic workers will test positive and have to isolate at a critical point in the season. Some migrant workers were also reluctant to get swabbed because a positive result could mean unpaid sick days. It is unclear whether the Leamington site will, in fact, remain open if the province moves forward with the hybrid approach.

More than 600 migrant farm workers have been infected with COVID-19 in Ontario alone; health officials have stressed that, for the most part, they contracted the virus locally. Two men from Mexico – Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24 – have died. The outbreaks have captured the attention of the highest levels of the government in Canada and Mexico. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has discussed the matter with his Mexican counterpart. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said earlier this week that Ottawa was working closely with Ontario to “ensure that the conditions in which temporary foreign workers live are ones that don’t harm their health.”

A Globe and Mail investigation into outbreaks among migrant farm workers published Tuesday exposed myriad factors that made them vulnerable to the virus: overcrowded accommodations; supervisors putting pressure on ill labourers to keep working; no sick days; an information vacuum; threats of deportation if strict productivity targets weren’t met; and lack of personal protective equipment. While Ottawa issued rules for the mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals, the conditions that workers faced post-isolation weren’t adequately monitored. Now blamed for the swift transmission of COVID-19 among migrant workers, the reality of life in farm bunkhouses was a massive blind spot.

Housing and work environments vary widely from province to province, and from farm to farm. Some workers described close relationships with their employers and decent accommodations. The provinces have also taken different approaches. In British Columbia, for example, the provincial government has assumed responsibility for overseeing the two-week isolation period; workers arriving from abroad are housed in facilities, paid for by the province. In Ontario, employers get funding from the federal government to provide workers with isolation accommodations, which can include bunkhouses at low capacity or hotel rooms.

Mexico is so concerned by the current situation that it has temporarily halted sending more agriculture workers until Canadian officials get a handle on the outbreaks and ensure people are properly paid while they’re in isolation. Upward of 5,000 Mexicans are still due to make the trip; they are critical to the success of Canadian farm operations and the country’s food system.

Dr. Ross Moncur, chief of staff and interim CEO of the Erie Shores HealthCare hospital, which is managing the Leamington assessment centre, said that while the site didn’t attract the numbers he had hoped, he believes the hundreds who were tested wouldn’t have been swabbed otherwise. “Yes, we didn’t hit the uptake we had hoped for, but at the end of the day this is about expanding access,” he said.

At the daily briefing Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford implored employers and workers to overcome any fears they may have and co-operate with the province’s assessment efforts. “Please get tested,” he said. “I can’t stress it enough.” Ms. Elliott said that the outbreaks among migrant workers in Windsor-Essex is “the biggest issue” preventing the region from advancing to the next stage of reopening.

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Pablo Godoy, the Calgary-based liaison for Mexico with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said he met virtually with Canadian and Mexican politicians and community leaders on Tuesday night to discuss the conditions facing migrant workers in Canada amid the pandemic. The conversation centred largely on accountability and enforcement of rules around housing, he said. In February, even before the coronavirus crisis emerged, Mr. Godoy was in Mexico lobbying government ministers to set up an independent oversight body to ensure that migrant workers in Canada were being treated with respect and had decent accommodations.

“We’re in Canada – we should have the power to ensure the food is being harvested in an ethical way,” Mr. Godoy said. “This isn’t in a foreign land, far away. This is in our own backyard.”

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