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Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The Mexican government says it will resume sending farm workers to Canada after securing a promise of better working conditions to curb outbreaks of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham HughesGraham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada says it will apply “strict sanctions” to employers in the agri-food sector found to have violated the rules around health protections for migrant farm workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough makes the promise in a letter to Mexican government officials. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a hard line on enforcement Monday, saying rules have been broken and there will be consequences. On the weekend, Juan Lopez Chaparro, a father of four from Mexico, became the third farm worker to die in Canada.

In her letter to Mexico’s ambassador to Canada, dated June 19, Ms. Qualtrough said her government is “actively looking” at additional near-term steps to bolster workers’ health and safety, including more outreach to workers on farms, and establishing a dedicated liaison officer who will work with consulates and migrant worker groups on allegations of non-compliance. “In cases of significant non-compliance by employers of temporary foreign workers, strict sanctions will be applied,” she said.

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During the coronavirus crisis, additional requirements were put in place that include paying workers for their mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada, monitoring the health of employees and reporting to public-health officials when someone has symptoms. The federal government has had the option of penalizing employers for violating COVID-19-related requirements under the temporary foreign worker program, including through a fine of up to $1-million and a ban on accessing labour through the program. The letter suggests that Ottawa wants to reassure Mexico it is willing to ramp up the enforcement of rules.

Ms. Qualtrough said the government will also bolster inspections if there is an outbreak. “We recognize that a number of positive cases in temporary foreign worker communities have begun as a result of community contact,” the letter said. In an interview with The Globe and Mail last week, she said the federal government is planning an overhaul of the program, and that in terms of the scope, “nothing is off the table.”

In Ontario alone, more than 630 migrant farm workers have been infected with COVID-19; three men from Mexico – Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, and Mr. Lopez Chaparro, 55 – have died in recent weeks. Mr. Lopez Chaparro, who died Saturday, worked at Scotlynn Group farm in Norfolk county – where nearly all of the 216 migrant workers have tested positive. He had been coming to Canada since 2010 and he leaves his wife and four children, the Migrant Rights Network said Monday.

A Globe investigation into farm outbreaks published last week exposed myriad factors that made migrant farm workers vulnerable to the virus: overrun accommodations; supervisors putting pressure on ill labourers to keep working; an information vacuum; threats of deportation if strict productivity targets weren’t met; and lack of personal protective equipment. In particular, the conditions that workers faced after a 14-day mandatory quarantine period weren’t adequately monitored, health experts say.

On Monday, Ms. Qualtrough told the Senate national finance committee that addressing the problems with the temporary foreign worker program is her top priority.

Mr. Trudeau said Monday that employers who don’t follow the rules on health protections for workers will face consequences. “There are cases in which those rules were not followed and we are extremely concerned by that and there will be consequences for companies that did not follow the rules designed to protect workers in Canada,” he said.

Ontario receives about 20,000 workers a year to work on farms, many of whom come from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica. Mexico’s government grew so concerned about worker health and safety that it temporarily halted sending more workers to Canada; on Sunday, it announced the resumption of the flow of workers after it reached a deal with Canada on health protections.

Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said Monday the province is working with federal inspectors and local health officials to begin joint farm inspections. “Where temporary foreign workers are working and living very closely together, the consequences are serious,” he said.

Mr. McNaughton said the province has already conducted more than 230 inspections on farms. He said the new inspections will review the working and living conditions of temporary foreign workers, and will begin this week.

A meaningful overhaul of the program must tip the balance of power toward workers, by granting access to permanent resident status, said Karen Cocq, campaigns co-ordinator at the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, on a video call with the media Monday. “Lack of access to permanent status is a fundamental roadblock to workers being able to protect themselves against the kinds of crises that we are now seeing break out.”

Her organization has been in touch with the family of Mr. Lopez Chaparro, she said. “They are devastated. They are in shock, that their father, their loved one, their husband, who had now been coming to Canada for 10 years, to work to provide support to the family is not going to be returning this year,” she said, adding that he has a nephew who also works at Scotlynn Group farm, who continues to work while mourning his uncle’s death.

The office of the chief coroner in Ontario said it is investigating the latest death, in addition to probes of the previous two fatalities; the results will determine whether the province will launch its first coroner’s inquest into the death of a migrant worker.

Farm outbreaks are affecting the reopening of local economies. As the rest of the province moves into the next stage of reopening, Windsor-Essex will have to wait because of a higher number of COVID-19 cases among migrant workers.

Health providers in the region set up a mass-testing and assessment centre in Leamington on June 9 but ceased operations last week, because of low demand from employers concerned that healthy workers might be exposed to the virus by travelling to the centre in buses. On the weekend, a mobile team visited a local greenhouse to test out the logistics and feasibility of on-farm swabbing. The Erie Shores HealthCare hospital, which is leading the testing trial, said two other farms expressed interest in having mobile teams on Tuesday and Wednesday.

With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa and Laura Stone in Toronto

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