Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who recently graduated with a master of public health from Brown University. Chris Ramsaroop is a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.
In the course of just a week, two migrant farm workers have died in Canada from COVID-19 – and the similarities between the tragedies are striking.
Both men were from Mexico, and both were relatively young: aged 31 and 24. Both of their deaths occurred in Windsor, Ont. And both of their deaths could have – and should have – been avoided.
Back in March, when it was clear that the world was facing a global epidemic, Canada moved quickly to close the borders and restrict international travel. But, at the behest of the agricultural industry, the federal government added migrant workers as essential travellers who would be exempted from the ban, requiring workers to stay quarantined for two weeks after arriving in Canada. They did not, however, regulate much more, including what their living facilities had to look like.
Now, more than 1,000 migrant workers – largely based in Ontario, where more than 420 migrant farm workers have tested positive – have shared complaints through a report by the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change about their terrible working and living conditions during the pandemic. Their experiences suggest that they are being treated as a mass contagion risk, rather than as the essential individuals that the government designated them to be. And while we need action to address the present crisis, there must be broader and long-term changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program so that no worker is put at risk like this again.
Health authorities have been too slow to respond. After an outbreak at a farm in Kent Bridge, Ont., Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health decided not to order a closure and sanitation of the facility, citing the virus-killing qualities of greenhouse warmth and the lack of evidence that COVID-19 is foodborne. However, greenhouses are still enclosed spaces where airborne viruses can be transmitted. Workers have also told organizations that they are not receiving adequate personal protective equipment; rather, we have heard they are being given just one mask per week. Health authorities have merely issued guidances on how employers should mitigate the spread of COVID-19, rather than issuing strict regulations that protect workers.
Even before the pandemic, housing for migrant farm workers has long been substandard. Many are typically given bunk-style housing, with no space to move around and many issues around sanitation, pests and safety. A 2018 government study found that there were gaps in the bunkhouse inspection process; however, amid lobbying by powerful agricultural groups, no action was taken.
The situation is worsened by the fact that migrant workers have long felt hesitant to come forward and criticize their employers, since their immigration status is dependent upon them. Indeed, even though they do the critical work of tending to Canada’s food chain, they are not eligible for permanent residency in Canada. If they even get sick, they can be deported back to their home countries, in a practice known as “medical repatriation.”
Essential workers have rightfully been recognized for their work during this crisis, but some migrant workers aren’t even getting monetary compensation or hazard pay. Some migrants have told advocates that they have not been paid during their quarantine period, in defiance of federal rules. Outside of work hours, migrant workers have said they’ve been confined to their claustrophobic bunkhouses and risk being penalized if they’re caught by surveillance or guards.
Migrant workers and their advocates have been warning for months now that work and living conditions at farms were ripe for uncontrolled outbreaks; sadly, this has come to pass. The government now needs to act swiftly with new regulations on housing standards, quarantine, sanitation, and PPE. When there are outbreaks at farms, they need to be temporarily closed for sanitation. Bunkhouses need to be phased out and replaced with good-quality housing. Permanent residency status must be an achievable goal. The practice of medical repatriation must cease, and workers recovering from COVID-19 must not be deported. All housing and workplace health and safety legislation must be expanded to cover farm workers and loopholes must be closed. And while testing will be important for identifying and containing the virus, it should be provided for all workers, not just migrant workers, so as to avoid perpetuating the stigma that they are vectors for the virus.
Migrant workers have been risking their lives to put food on the tables of Canadians for years. It’s time we took steps to protect them – especially now.
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