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Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., on May 6, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

As the 2021 growing season begins, farmers are navigating vastly different systems across the country for keeping their migrant workers safe.

Farms have 17 active COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario, where employers are responsible for ensuring migrant workers quarantine on arrival.

In British Columbia, the provincial government is paying to place its seasonal farmworkers from other countries in hotels for the two-week isolation period. With 1,660 migrant workers already in B.C. this year, the program so far has identified 38 cases of COVID-19 – cases that were contained before the farmhands went into the community to work.

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Tens of thousands of people arrive every year in Canada - mostly from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala -- to provide seasonal farm labour because not enough domestic workers will take it on.

The temporary foreign workers (TFWs) will stay for months at a time, often housed in crowded conditions that can allow the pandemic to spread, as a Globe and Mail investigation found last year. Hundreds of agricultural labourers, mostly in Ontario, tested positive for COVID-19 last spring, prompting the Mexican government to temporarily suspend the annual exodus of its workers to Canadian farms - although B.C., with its publicly funded quarantine program, was exempt.

Last June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Canada would make changes to better protect migrant workers. Federal officials did not provide details this week on when those changes will come.

Bill George hires the same six migrant workers every year to help tend the grapevines at his 160-acre farm in Beamsville, Ont. The six arrived last week, and they are serving their quarantine under rules that allow groups of up to 10 to isolate together. He said the quarantine requirements at his farm are not a burden, but larger operations may struggle. “We have got them internet services, Netflix, but they are so bored,” he said.

Mr. George is chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, and across the province, he said, the rules for quarantine vary depending on which of the 34 public health units they fall under. “Each unit has its own requirements for housing regulations, so what our members have to deal with is all over the map.” Meanwhile, he is waiting for Ottawa to clarify if new travel requirements will be imposed. As essential workers, the farm labourers currently come in under separate rules from non-essential travellers.

Vancouver Island farmer Terry Michell is expecting his crew of 20 skilled migrant workers to arrive in B.C. next week, and they should be at the farm by the end of the month, when they have completed their quarantines.

At this time last year, Mr. Michell wasn’t sure if he would leave the fields fallow. Michell’s Farm relies on TFWs every year to supplement local crews. With the arrival of the pandemic, Mr. Michell didn’t know if he would have enough hands to run the sixth-generation family famer on the Saanich Peninsula.

Last April, after a nursery in British Columbia was shut down owing to a COVID-19 outbreak, the provincial government proposed to take on the logistical challenge of quarantine, leaving farmers to focus on their work.

“Once we knew the government was going to take over the quarantine, then we were planting like crazy,” Mr. Michell said. “We had all the family out planting, because we knew that we were going to have the harvesters available.”

Lana Popham, B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, says the support program was worth the investment – no other farm outbreak was traced to the 5,000 workers who were quarantined by the province last year. “From a COVID-19 lens, it was very successful. And we had, and still do have, the strongest protocols in Canada,” Ms. Popham said in an interview.

Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers said the current outbreaks at Ontario farms prove that province’s isolation rules don’t work. “It’s the living and working conditions. There is no real oversight or protection, there is no enforcement,” he said. “Workers are going hungry during the quarantine period, they are being quarantined in their rooms without fresh air. We are not considering the well-being of workers.”

Ontario typically brings 24,000 temporary foreign workers to its farms annually. This year, workers are transported to the farms where they will work and sit out their quarantine there, unless their employers have made alternative housing arrangements.

Christa Roettele, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said the province is stepping up inspections, and the Ministry of Health is offering rapid test kits to screen for COVID-19 on location, and it plans to include farmworkers in the second phase of vaccination.

In New Brunswick, farmers are grappling with stricter rules for quarantine this year. Security must be provided to ensure migrant workers don’t gather if they are put into hotels, and they cannot share sleeping, bathroom, kitchen or living spaces for the 14 days.

In B.C., workers in quarantine will receive comfort packages that include familiar snacks provided by volunteer organizations. The province pays for the hotel, food-service costs, laundry services, wellness walks, interpretation and translation services. The program cost the province almost $17-million last year, and it identified and isolated 64 workers who tested positive for the virus after they arrived in Canada.

Berenice Diaz Ceballos, Mexico’s Consul-General in Vancouver, said the program in B.C. is a model for the rest of the country.

Ms. Ceballos has advocated for improved working conditions for farm labourers since she took up her post in 2016. She toured hundreds of farms in B.C. and, while she encountered good practices in many cases, she also documented bad employers and horrific working conditions - farms at which she has told the Mexican government her people should not work.

The living conditions at farms are now being inspected to ensure pandemic safety protocols are followed. And that, she said, is helping improve many of the issues that have long plagued the industry. “These changes need to be made permanent,” she said. “If they do it in a preventive way, as it is being done now with COVID-19, I expect that more than 80 per cent of the problems that we have with the [TFW] program could be solved.”

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