Migrant worker from Jamaica dies in COVID-19 isolation in Ontario while waiting to start work

·4 min read
Concerns over the entry of migrant workers to Canada as COVID-19 Omicron cases are rising have been raised in recent weeks, with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit first directing employers to suspend bringing temporary foreign workers to the southwestern Ontario region, then walking back the directive.   (CBC - image credit)
Concerns over the entry of migrant workers to Canada as COVID-19 Omicron cases are rising have been raised in recent weeks, with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit first directing employers to suspend bringing temporary foreign workers to the southwestern Ontario region, then walking back the directive. (CBC - image credit)

A temporary foreign worker who recently arrived in Ontario from Jamaica has died while in isolation for COVID-19.

The man was in his 40s, according to Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of Ontario Greenhouse and Vegetable Growers.

Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development told CBC News late Thursday that it learned of the death on Monday.

Other details — such as the man's name, his employer and cause of death — aren't immediately known.

The man came to the province earlier this month and had been in an isolation centre in Essex County in southwestern Ontario. He died sometime between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, days before his isolation was set to finish.

It's unclear exactly where the man was in isolation. But Sbrocchi said it was in a hotel in the Leamington or Kingsville area of Essex County.

"He seemed to be in good shape, he was double vaccinated, there was no indication prior, and he was set to come out of his quarantine the day after on Tuesday," said Sbrocchi.

He said a farmer with the business the man was set to work for had gone to the hotel to check on him that morning.

"When the farmer arrived ... he didn't answer the door," said Sbrocchi.

"The farmer and the hotel manager went in, opened the door and found that he had passed away, or at least had no vital signs that they could detect.

"This particular farmer has an outstanding reputation for taking care of people and it's really unfortunate. He feels terrible about losing this gentleman and having such a young person passing away."

Jason Viau/CBC
Jason Viau/CBC

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) said that as of Wednesday, 195 temporary foreign workers in the region were in isolation as either "high-risk contacts" or positive for COVID-19.

Just over a week ago, WECHU issued a letter of instruction, directing employers to cancel, suspend or postpone the arrival of temporary foreign workers to the region between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1 due to rising COVID-19 Omicron cases, and a lack of available space and resources to isolate the workers — a move criticized by advocates and local officials

A federally funded Isolation and Recovery Centre in Windsor had been completely full with isolated workers.

Days later, public health rescinded those instructions, once again allowing their arrival, stating more space was made available to house isolating and recently arrived workers.

At the time, Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture said about 400 agriculture workers were set to arrive in Windsor-Essex in the next few weeks, largely from Jamaica and Mexico. Most of these workers would be double vaccinated against COVID-19, but would be offered first, second or booster doses at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

In the email to CBC News, the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said the worker died before starting on the farm, but since an investigation is ongoing, it couldn't provide more details.

The ministry said Ontario Provincial Police in Leamington and a liaison officer from the Jamaican Consulate were present during the ministry's investigation, and Ontario's Office of the Chief Coroner is working to determine the cause of death.

While questions remain around what happened to the man from Jamaica, many of his colleagues at the farm and elsewhere are reluctant to come forward about what they know because they are afraid it may impact their employment, said Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Hussan has advocated that the federal government make all would-be farm workers permanent residents so they can benefit from legal protections offered to all workers in Canada.

Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC
Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC

"Years into this crisis, migrant farm workers are still dying, they're working when they're sick, and they're being blamed for COVID-19 and the federal government," he said.

"We are looking for action not words, not explanations, not blaming this on COVID-19. This man, among many others, came here to grow your tomatoes, your cucumbers, your peppers and he is dead because of the failures of the federal immigration system."

Syed said he is trying to reach the family of the man from Jamaica, unsure if they are aware of his death.

"We all know this is a widespread situation and the entire sector is terribly saddened by it," said Sbrocchi.

Public health officials estimate 2,000 workers have already arrived in the region. During the peak growing season, 8,000 to 10,000 workers are expected to be in Essex County.

In earlier stages of the pandemic, Windsor-Essex saw a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers.

At least four temporary foreign workers have died in Ontario since the beginning of the pandemic. They include:

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