As Southwestern Ontario farmers that rely heavily on offshore labour wind down their second growing season of the pandemic, worker infections from COVID-19 are down dramatically from a year prior.
Last year, the virus dealt a heavy blow to migrant workers, and the farms on which they work, with the province recording 2,089 infections, dozens of outbreaks and three deaths.
That number of cases is down by almost half, with 1,102 so far this year, according to the Ministry of Labour. There were five deaths, but all during the quarantine period before workers got to farms. Figures on outbreaks were not available.
So, what's changed?
Some producers and officials say the answer boils down to two things: vaccination of migrant workers and a surge in government inspections of farm operations to ensure compliance with virus safety protocols.
"We understand things a lot better than we did in the spring of 2020 to protect the workforce," said Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association.
"Fast forward into 2021, growers had all the safety protocols and safety equipment in place. I think that certainly helped keep the spread of infections down."
George said he backed the government's approach to the distribution vaccines for farmworkers, including pop-up clinics at the airport and prioritizing them after health-care workers.
However, he noted, vaccines on farms are not mandatory.
"We can't force any worker to be vaccinated," George said. "We did a big education campaign around vaccinations for the workers from Mexico and eastern Caribbean countries. There was reluctance amongst certain individuals, but for the most part, the majority of the workforce did get vaccinated."
Canadian farmers rely on nearly 60,000 offshore farm labourers each year to work in fields, orchards, barns and greenhouses. Nearly one-third of them work in Ontario, mainly in the Southwestern Ontario's farm belt.
Eighty-four per cent of temporary foreign farmworkers in Ontario have received one vaccine dose and 76 per cent have received two, figures from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs show.
At Delhaven Orchards near Cedar Springs, all but one of its 20 workers from Jamaica are vaccinated.
"Our men are just as scared of COVID as we were," said Hector Delanghe, owner of the 480-acre (190-hectare) farm, now in its peak of its apple harvest. "We had no problem with enforcing the rules. Anything handled by hand in the (bunkhouses) and even our packing house gets wiped down three times a day with Lysol."
He said his farm took precautions early by installing a separate bunkhouse with two beds where workers could isolate if they tested positive for the virus. Luckily, he added, there have been no reports of infections at his farm.
Delanghe said his farm was inspected by the federal government and again by the province on two occasions.
[caption id="attachment_687235" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Rushane Atlan, of Jamaica, is shown at Delhaven Orchards near Blenheim. (Trevor Terfloth/Postmedia Network)[/caption]
Between May and October, the Ontario Ministry of Labour completed more than 250 inspections and issued 200 non-compliance orders for COVID-19 safety protocols, said Labour Minister Monte McNaughton. Those inspections don't cover housing for migrant workers, which is federally regulated.
"When my ministry has gone out to do proactive inspections, which we've done thousands (of) throughout the pandemic, 98 per cent of farms reported no cases," said McNaughton, who represents Lambton-Kent-Middlesex.
"Overwhelmingly, the majority of farmers did great work in keeping the firm safe and safe."
But in Norfolk County, a major producer of farm and vegetables, where a massive COVID-19 outbreak left one migrant worker dead and infected about 200 others, was the first farm to be charged under the ministry's workplace safety laws.
A Ministry of Labour health and safety inspector levied 27 charges against Scotlynn Sweet-Pac Growers Inc. and its owner Scott Biddle for alleged violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Reopening Ontario Act between May and October.
Despite a decline in cases and government efforts to improve farm safety measures, one advocacy group says not enough is being done to protect workers.
"We're still seeing the same horror stories, the same concerns that we were facing last year," said Chris Ramsaroop of Justice 4 Migrant Workers, an umbrella group that advocates for foreign labourers. "We did have several workers who died upon arrival."
The group is also calling for changes to agricultural employment standards around minimum wage and overtime pay, health and safety regulations and anti-reprisal measures for workers who raise concerns.
Ramsaroop said the current federal and provincial inspections around housing and working conditions, though necessary, are "meaningless until we (change) the act to fully protect workers.
"When an inspector is going out there, they have only limited powers," he said. "They may have a few discretionary powers."
And he adds often no followup after the inspection.
As the farmers prepare to wrap up this season, their harvest done, some officials predict the safety protocols and inspections at farm operations are here to stay for a while yet.
"I don't think the virus is going anywhere," George said. "I think the way farm operations have put barriers in place,, the way restaurants have, will stay until we do see the end of COVID. I'm sure we'll be living with some protocols going forward to keep everyone safe for the next year anyways."
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press