By Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Work and Wealth Reporter
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Sweeping reforms are required to prevent further COVID-19 outbreak among migrant farm labourers, experts have warned the provincial government, as the number of workers diagnosed with the virus surpasses 1,000.
In a letter sent to the ministries of labour, health and agriculture, a group of academics and clinicians have called for a “concerted and collaborative” strategy that includes more robust workplace inspections, stronger anti-reprisal protections for workers, and a reversal of public health guidelines allowing those who have tested positive but are asymptomatic to keep working.
The recommendations from the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group also call for collaboration with the provincial workers’ compensation board to “promote and support employer compliance” in reporting illnesses.
A Star tally of media reports and public health unit data puts the number of farm workers diagnosed with the virus at more than 1,000 — after an outbreak announced Monday at a York Region mushroom farm saw 30 workers diagnosed, and a recent outbreak at Nature Fresh Farms in Leamington involved almost 200.
According to data published by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, it has so far registered around 515 COVID-19 related claims from the agricultural sector (around 98 per cent of the claims processed to date have been accepted).
Three migrant workers have died from the virus — most recently, 55-year-old father of four Juan Lopez Chaparro.
“Urgent action is needed to prevent further illness and deaths among this essential workforce,” the working group’s letter sent Monday says.
“Now is the time for the Ontario government to show true leadership to prevent further tragedies, deaths and outbreaks in our fields, nurseries, greenhouses and packing plants.”
Among the recommendations is a call for stronger enforcement, including “proactive, unannounced, comprehensive and ongoing on-site inspections” by the ministry of labour. The working group said inspectors should also engage with migrant workers without supervisors present and in their own language.
“In order for migrant workers to understand why inspections are taking place, and apprehend their rights in the context of inspections and beyond, as well as to comprehend fully the questions that inspectors are asking, they need to be conducted in languages that workers understand,” said Leah Vosko, a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Gender and Work at York University.
The letter says migrant workers need clear information on their right to refuse unsafe work and stronger anti-reprisal protection. In a June 22 webinar for farming-sector safety stakeholders, labour ministry staff said no work refusals have been filed to date by migrant workers, according to the letter.
“Most workers know of an individual who has been deported or kicked out of the temporary agricultural program they are enrolled in which has a huge chilling effect on reporting, and creates a very coercive workplace dynamic,” said Susana Caxaj, an assistant professor at Western University’s Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing.
“Many workers I have worked with, both in research and in a personal capacity, have told me about not seeking medical care, not reporting a workplace injury, not reporting harassment or discrimination, not pursuing a complaint to recover lack of payment, because fear of long-term loss of employment.”
A Star investigation recently found long-standing complaints about living and working conditions at one Norfolk Country farm where some 200 migrant workers were recently diagnosed with the virus.
The recommendations made by the working group, which includes academics from across Canada as well as occupational health experts, also calls for a reversal of recent public health guidance allowing asymptomatic workers who have tested positive for the virus to continue working when deemed “critical to operations.”
Some 760 doctors and health professionals also signed a letter to the government last week demanding an immediate reversal of the guidelines, calling them a “specific and demonstrated public health risk” to migrant workers.
Caxaj said providing accessible, comprehensive health care to migrant workers should be a priority for the ministry.
“Even before the pandemic, migrant agricultural workers in many regions of the province — and the country — depend on employers’ discretion and employer-provided transportation to access health services,” she said. “We know of countless cases where workers have reported health concerns and requested medical care and have been encouraged instead to self-medicate or wait it out.”
The Ministry of Health directed the Star’s queries about the working group’s recommendations to the Ministry of Labour.
In a statement, the province’s labour minister Monte McNaughton said worker safety laws “apply to all workers in Ontario,” including migrant workers, temporary workers and undocumented workers.
“Outsourcing labour does not allow farmers to outsource their health and safety responsibilities,” the statement said.
Janet Deline, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, said inspections have increased to protect migrant workers, and that are all inspections are “unannounced, comprehensive and focused on ensuring full compliance with our health and safety regulation.”
While the WSIB is an arms-length organization, Deline said both the board and the ministry are reaching out to employers to inform them of their obligations to report illness.
“Eligibility for compensation is not determined by immigration status and the WSIB has interpreters to help foreign workers file claims. Health and safety information from our ministry is also available in multiple languages, including Spanish,” Deline said.
The working group’s letter calls future migrant worker deaths “preventable.”
“We urge the provincial government to show strong leadership in implementing measures to avoid further needless tragedies,” it says.