Kingsville fire chief says pandemic has highlighted issues in migrant worker housing

·3 min read

Kingsville Fire Chief Chuck Parsons said if there is a "positive" from the pandemic, it's that it has exposed the issue of congregate living in the region and identified gaps in the inspection system that is used to approve housing for migrant workers.

"If there's anything positive that came out of COVID, it … brought to light that congregate living is a situation that we have down here and a situation that we need to keep the workers safe," said Parsons, who's been doing migrant housing inspections for 19 years.

Data compiled by CBC News show that more than 670 have tested positive across farms in Windsor-Essex, Ont.

Windsor-Essex saw its largest spikes of new COVID-19 cases on Sunday and Monday. Of the new cases on those days, 183 involved workers in the agri-farm sector. Two temporary foreign workers from Mexico have died in the region after testing positive for COVID-19. A third migrant worker on a farm near Simcoe, Ont., also died after contracting the disease.

As COVID-19 continues to spread across greenhouses and farms in Kingsville and Leamington, the province has really shifted its focus to migrant worker living conditions.

Agriculture facilities that house migrant workers in Kingsville are usually subject to building and fire inspections, in addition to one from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Parsons said.

He added that the health unit inspection is mandatory for farmers to receive their workers.

One of the main inconsistencies with these inspections, he said, is the number of people approved to live in a bunkhouse.

Parsons said each inspecting body will approve a different number of people for a facility because they are each looking at different criteria, and typically, the health unit approves a higher number.

The criteria differs because the health unit mainly looks at the amount of cubic feet per person and the fire department assesses the number of devices available to evacuate the facility in the case of an emergency, among other features.

For example, Parsons said, if there is no alarm system, the facility cannot hold more than 10 people.

Ousama Farag/CBC
Ousama Farag/CBC

"The problem we get into is health numbers are generally higher than what fire and safety numbers are within a congregate living space," Parsons said, adding that what's worse is the inspections are done at different times.

Because of this, Parsons said it makes more sense for the health unit and fire department to conduct simultaneous inspections so they can both approve the same number of workers.

"It's much better to do it at the same time so the information going through to the grower is consistent," he said.

"What should happen, if we were all working together, is whoever had the lowest number, that's what they'd be approved for."

Safety conditions approved by the fire department

When Parsons or any other fire department inspector enters a facility he said they're looking at how many people are expected to live there and whether the number of early detection devices matches that.

For example, alarm systems and ways to exit in case of a fire will help determine the number of people a space can accommodate.

Additionally, Parsons said they record the number of stoves, clothes dryers or anything similar that could pose a hazard.

Some buildings that house a large number of people try to ensure privacy between workers by inserting cardboard barriers, so fire inspectors ensure that those aren't at risk of starting a fire.

If a building violates any of the measures the fire department requires, Parson said first and foremost, they'll try to work with the grower or farmer and the health unit to bring it up to their safety standards.

If anything, they can also file an order and prosecute the owners under the Ontario Fire Code.