Federal travel rules create uncertainty, 'anxiety' for foreign farm workers

·3 min read

Uncertainty over how new federal travel restrictions and COVID-19 testing requirements will apply to migrant workers is causing “anxiety” ahead of Southwestern Ontario's growing season, advocates say.

“There’s been no clear communication from the federal government,” said Chris Ramsaroop of the advocacy group Justice 4 Migrant Workers.

“The uncertainty, of course, is creating anxiety for the workers.”

Many migrant workers and their farm employers became caught in the fallout of the pandemic's first wave last spring, delaying their arrival in Ontario from Caribbean and other countries. Farm outbreaks later became an early pandemic flashpoint in Southwestern Ontario, sometimes with deadly results.

A year later, with planning underway for the next growing season, the rules are much more strict.

Besides the existing requirement that anyone flying to Canada show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure, the feds recently added more precautions — another test on arrival, followed by a three-day hotel quarantine — costing about $2,000.

That's on top of the mandatory 14-day self-isolation required of anyone who enters the country.

The federal ministry overseeing the temporary foreign worker program, Employment and Social Development Canada, said it's still working out how travel restrictions and testing requirements would apply to migrant workers.

“The Government of Canada is looking at how to integrate these measures for specific essential groups, like temporary foreign workers, as the implementation plan is developed,” spokesperson Samuelle Carbonneau said in an email. “This will help ensure we are supporting both workers and Canada’s food supply. We will share more information when it becomes available.”

Justice 4 Migrant Workers is calling on the federal and provincial governments to cover all quarantine and COVID-19 testing costs for migrant workers.

“With all these costs, the best analogy is that the workers are first in debt to the Canadian government before they start,” Ramsaroop said. “We need to ensure that the workers don’t pay for this and it doesn’t come from their pockets.”

Ontario relies on about 20,000 offshore workers annually, with many bound for the Southwestern region’s rich farm belt.

Last year, farms in Southwestern Ontario became hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Nearly 1,800 migrant workers were infected with the virus and three died.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health confirmed temporary foreign workers who come to the province will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, once available.

“When temporary workers get vaccinated depends on where they fall in the priority framework,” said Lindsay Davidson.

In preparation for the upcoming season and the arrival of migrant workers, Ontario’s Labour Ministry is conducting an inspection blitz to ensure farms are complying with beefed-up safety measures.

Essex County already has had double-digit outbreaks in agriculture workplaces this year, even with the season yet to begin.

More than 2,000 migrant workers already have arrived in Ontario this year, according to Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services.

Although most flights to the Caribbean and Mexico have been suspended, Forth said migrant workers still are able to travel to Canada on charter flights.

Amid the travel uncertainty, Ramsaroop said migrant workers and advocates have not been properly included in pandemic-response policymaking, which has “disenfranchised” the workforce.

In addition to asking either the provincial or federal governments to cover the costs of testing and quarantine for offshore workers, Justice 4 Migrant Workers is calling on Ontario to enact sick pay to better protect migrant workers.

“Rather than learn lessons from the first stage of the pandemic, each government continues to fail to protect the people and their families who put food on our table,” he said.

maxmartin@postmedia.comThe Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press