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A COVID-19 outbreak among temporary foreign workers and other employees of a Quebec agricultural company has raised concerns about health risks when farm workers move between multiple work sites.

The public health authority for the region south of Montreal says it told the company, Vegpro International, to use a more “stable” work force after nearly two dozen workers recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The 23 workers, including 18 temporary foreign workers, were working at the facility in Sherrington, Que., which ships produce to Canada and the northeastern United States.

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The health authority, CISSS Monteregie-Centre, has recommended that the company “ensure a better stability of workers, including those from agencies” according to spokeswoman Chantal Vallee.

That would “limit the number of contacts (between workers),” Vallee said, and allow the company to “build a registry that can be used to track the outbreak.”

“We’re following the situation closely,” Vallee added.

The use of placement agencies to staff workplaces during the COVID-19 outbreak has drawn considerable attention in Quebec, which is the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada.

In the province’s health-care sector, orderlies and other workers employed by placement agencies were sent to multiple long-term care homes, which is believed to have contributed to the spread of the novel coronavirus in some facilities.

In a statement Thursday, Vegpro said its main concern was the well-being of its workers.

The statement did not say how many of the company’s 1,000 employees are temporary foreign workers or how many are employed through agencies.

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Vegpro said that it conducted an internal probe after its first worker tested positive for COVID-19 last month.

It also said it asked the health authority to set up a mobile testing unit at that time, but was told it wasn’t possible.

More workers were tested for COVID-19 on May 30 using the regular system, the company said.

CISSS Monteregie-Centre said it sent a mobile unit to Vegpro International on Thursday and tested 15 more workers.

“The company is taking our recommendation to ensure better worker stability very seriously,” Vallee said.

Joey Calugay, a community organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal, said many workers hired through placement agencies are new immigrants seeking their “first entry to the labour market” in Quebec.

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Others are older immigrant workers looking to supplement their income with day labour, as well as asylum seekers and undocumented workers, Calugay explained.

He said labour shortages have pushed some medium- and large-sized companies to hire through temp agencies.

“They do hire sometimes day labourers, workers who come from cities,” said Calugay, noting that may contribute to the potential spread of COVID-19.

“If somebody gets sick, then the spread is quick.”

In April, the Quebec government said it would invest $42.6 million to support the agricultural sector, which it said was facing a worker shortage due to the pandemic.

Julio Lara, a Quebec-based representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a need to use a more permanent work force, especially in key industries such as agriculture.

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“It’s in a time of crisis like this pandemic we’re living through when we realize what jobs are really essential, but that sometimes are forgotten or undervalued,” Lara said.

Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda says the province is exploring options to help reduce COVID-19 transmission on farms after an outbreak among temporary foreign workers. The Canadian Press

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