Migrant worker advocates not satisfied with government strategy to prevent COVID-19 on farms

·5 min read

The provincial government launched a new strategy Monday that it believes to be its best shot at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among migrant farm workers.

The details of the new strategy were announced in a news conference Monday by Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ernie Hardeman. The strategy, Hardeman said, involves three key pillars and 35 actions that were developed in partnership with key farming and agriculture stakeholders, government representatives and with input from groups that work with temporary foreign workers.

"Together we worked on sharing information and develop a thorough thoughtful strategy that will go a long way to prevent [and] control outbreaks over the next year's growing season," Hardeman said during the news conference.

But the new strategy was not welcomed by migrant worker advocates, who say that the policies left out employee input.

Jason Viau/CBC
Jason Viau/CBC

In an emailed statement to CBC News, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change Syed Hussan said, "Rules and policies that affect migrant workers must be set by migrant workers, not by employers and government. At a time when over 1,600 farm workers have fallen sick and 3 have died as a result of employer abuse and government inaction, to shut out migrant workers from setting the agenda shows the priorities of the provincial government.

"We say again, nothing about us, without us! This entire policy fails to deal with the central issue of lack of worker power which is a result of full and permanent immigration status."

Organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers Chris Ramsaroop echoed Hussan's statement and said that the government cannot have meaningful action unless workers have an "equal stake at the tables" and are "equal partners in decision-making."

But he added that to his group's understanding there's been no representation from workers groups or advocates in these conversations.

For now, Ramsaroop said provincially no steps have been taken to date to enhance working conditions or create better legislative protections in regards to employment standards or occupational health and safety.

He said he plans to go over the new strategy in more detail, but feels as though "the provincial government has failed in its commitment to protect vulnerable workers."

"The task force and its recommendations is industry driven and once again 9fails) to address the concerns that farm workers have been raising. We have to address the powerlessness, the voicelessness and the precarious situation that exists because of the disenfranchisement that exists within the workplace and also at the federal level," he said.

Strategy involves immediate and long-term pressures

The initiative, Prevention, Control and Outbreak Support Strategy for COVID-19 in Ontario's Farm Workers, includes prevention and containment strategies for before workers get on the farm, during their work shift and in their living accommodations.

Under each of these sections there are outlined actions that farmers, workers, the government and the industry need to take.

Jon Castell/CBC
Jon Castell/CBC

The beginning of the initiative states there are three high-level objectives of the strategy, which include:

  • "Prevent and contain COVID-19 outbreaks in agri-food workplaces."

  • "Protect the health and wellness of agri-food workers while respecting their rights and freedoms."

  • "Maintain sustainability and viability of agri-food sector."

The news release Monday also outlined $52.1 million in funding from the provincial and federal governments that has been set aside over the last month. These funds will be used for on-farm personal protective equipment (PPE) and toward the Agri-food Prevention and Control Innovation Program.

Short-term solutions refer to the use of PPE, physical distancing practices, widespread adoption of screening practices and limiting the number of workers moving between farms, along with a number of other recommendations.

Testing

Another challenge the sector faced when outbreaks first began, Hardeman said, was the ability to perform widespread testing.

"That was one of the things we realized immediately when the pandemic started and the outbreaks started in this industry ... we realized that there was a challenge in getting people tested and the answer in my mind is the more we can test, the sooner we can test, the smaller the outbreak will be if there is one," he said.

In order to implement better testing measures, Hardeman said they will have to better communicate with farm workers so that they know where to get tested, how to get help and to ease any other concerns workers might have about the process.

Congregate living a long-term pressure

One of the biggest issues the agriculture sector faced when trying to contain the spread of the virus was how to do so when most of its workforce was housed in congregate living settings.

"Obviously we saw that a lot of the housing, that we had for years, is fine until you have a pandemic where you have to isolate people and we have to have something different," Hardeman said, adding that there is a specific section in the new strategy that calls on the government to develop housing standards.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press
Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Under the new guidelines it states that, " decreasing the numbers of workers sharing living arrangements as much as possible is an important strategy for preventing transmission of COVID-19.

The federal government has also announced it will develop mandatory requirements under the [Temporary Foreign Worker Program] to improve employer-provided worker accommodations, in consultation with provinces, territories, employers, workers and foreign partner countries."