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A migrant worker wears a mask while loading trays of onions at Mayfair Farms in Portage la Prairie, Man., on April 28, 2020.SHANNON VANRAES/Reuters

Edward Dunsworth is a prize-winning historian of Canada, migration and labour who is currently a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at York University and, in the fall term, an assistant professor of history at McGill University.

On May 30, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, a 31-year-old Mexican migrant farm worker in Windsor-Essex County, became the first known temporary foreign farm labourer to die from COVID-19 in Canada. One week later, a second Mexican migrant in Windsor-Essex, 24-year-old Rogelio Munoz Santos, met the same fate.

Elsewhere in Ontario, hundreds of farm workers have tested positive for the virus and dozens have been hospitalized, with the biggest outbreak occurring at the Scotlynn Group farm in Norfolk County, where about three-quarters of the migrant work force has contracted the novel coronavirus.

Lamentably, for these men and women, risking their lives in the course of their work is nothing new. Instead, in the half-century in which they have laboured in Canada, seasonal farm workers from the Global South have found themselves in a permanent state of risk – of illness, injury and death – while governments and employers have demurred on enacting meaningful reforms. These latest tragic deaths and the swell of infections during the pandemic are part of a rotten, decades-old regime of racial and economic apartheid and amount to nothing less than the systemic sacrifice of human lives at the altar of profit.

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Mr. Eugenio Romero, Mr. Munoz Santos and the Scotlynn farm workers all came to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Founded in 1966, the SAWP brings upward of 40,000 workers to Canada each year from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries to work seasonal jobs in agriculture and food processing. Another 20,000 or so temporary farm workers enter Canada each year through other programs.

Participants in the SAWP are bound to their assigned employer, unable to freely change jobs. In most provinces, they are barred from joining or forming a union. They are often housed in cramped, if not downright appalling, conditions – perfectly suited for the spread of infectious disease. With their employment and immigration status effectively controlled by employers, migrants dependent on their minimum-wage Canadian incomes have a strong disincentive to speak out against abuses. And though many toil for decades in Canada, there is no pathway for SAWP workers to become permanent residents in the country that so desperately needs their labour. (A small permanent residency pilot program announced last year is open only to workers on year-round contracts, thus excluding the large majority.)

On top of it all, migrant farm workers’ jobs and living situations are highly dangerous and – as we are seeing now – sometimes even deadly.

This has been evident since the very founding of the SAWP. While none of the 264 Jamaicans who travelled to Canada in the program’s first year died on the job, 13 of them were chased out of their bunkhouse one night by a drunken, shotgun-toting friend of their boss, and forced to flee seven kilometres down a dark rural road. The program’s first fatalities came in 1967, its second year, when two of the 1,077 participants died in Canada from unknown causes.

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A farm worker attends to equipment at an asparagus-farming facility near Vittoria, Ont., on June 3, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In the decades since, dozens of workers have had their names added to this unenviable list, with countless more injured and taken ill. A Jamaican worker, who is unnamed in government reports, was killed by lightning strike in Beamsville, Ont., in 1973. Ned Peart, another Jamaican, was killed in 2002 on a tobacco farm in Brantford, Ont. In 2012, in Hampstead, Ont., a passenger van carrying 13 Peruvian and Nicaraguan poultry labourers returning home after a long day’s work collided with a truck driven by Christopher Fulton; David Armando Blancas Hernandez, Elvio Suncion Bravo, Enrique Arturo Arenaza Leon, Juan Castillo, Fernando Martin Valdiviezo Correa, Jose Mercedes Valdiviezo Taboa, Cesar Augusto Sanchez Palacios, Corsino Jaramillo, Lizardo Mario Abril and Oscar Walter Campomanes Corzo were killed, as was Mr. Fulton. Ivan Guerrero of Mexico drowned in 2014 while trying to fix a leak near his bunkhouse in Ormstown, Que., a year after recording a video in which he described being treated like a dog by his employer. Sheldon McKenzie, a Jamaican worker who suffered a severe head injury working at a tomato farm in Leamington, Ont., passed away months later in September, 2015. Zenaida, a Mexican woman whose last name was not made public, was killed in a hit-and-run in Niagara last summer. And now, Mr. Eugenio Romero and Mr. Munoz Santos.

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has so poignantly implored us to do for victims of police violence, we should know – and say – their names.

Then and now, employers that have built a multibillion dollar industry on the backs of migrant labourers have demonstrated more concern for the financial costs of death and illness than with providing safer conditions for workers.

The primary response from growers to the two SAWP workers’ deaths in 1967 was to lobby the government on cost-sharing arrangements. “The employers … felt that they should not be held responsible for the costs of burial in case of the death of a worker,” a government memo tersely noted.

Amid the current pandemic, as a scathing June 8 report by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change reveals, employers have illegally clawed back wages from quarantining workers, imposed draconian restrictions on their freedoms and required employees to live and work in wildly unsafe conditions.

Publicly, farmers have voiced opposition to quarantine rules, and stridently so in Norfolk County, the site of the Scotlynn outbreak. In recent weeks, Schuyler Farms – with the vocal support of many other area growers – launched a legal challenge against local health unit regulations that prohibit more than three workers sharing accommodations during their two-week quarantine upon arrival in Canada. Even with the Scotlynn outbreak in full effect, Schuyler has pushed forward with the challenge, decrying the threat to crops and calling the requirement “arbitrary.”

Meanwhile, Scotlynn chief executive Scott Biddle saw it fit to give a newspaper interview last week lamenting the loss of 450 acres of asparagus, even as seven of his employees lay in hospital beds – two in intensive care – with COVID-19.

For their part, governments in both Canada and migrant-sending countries have remained steadfastly disinterested in taking measures to better safeguard the health and safety of migrant workers, preferring to treat worker deaths and accidents as isolated incidents rather than as manifestations of systemic oppression.

To date, there has never been a single coroner’s inquest into the death of a migrant farm worker, despite significant pressure from victims’ families and advocacy groups such as Justicia for Migrant Workers over the years. Meanwhile, workers who have been incapacitated on the job in Canada are frequently sent back home and cut off from compensation payments, regardless of their employment prospects. And now, as Toronto Star uncovered, Jamaican workers leaving for Canada are required to sign waivers that release the Jamaican government from liability for any coronavirus-related “costs, damages and loss.”

Urgent changes are needed to protect migrant farm workers from COVID-19. But the coronavirus is merely the latest symptom of a decades-old illness for Canada’s migrant agricultural work force. To treat it properly will require a complete overhaul of the temporary foreign worker regime, a key component of which will be the granting of permanent residency status to all participants, as has been done for front-line migrant workers in many other countries during the pandemic.

Only then can Canada begin to correct the rank hypocrisy of treating essential workers as expendable and turn a page on this shameful part of our history.

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