Migrant workers prefer to risk getting COVID-19 than die from starvation, says journalist in Mexico

Andalusia Knoll Soloff, a freelance journalist in Mexico City who has documented migrant farm workers for years, says she wasn't surprised when she heard the news of three migrant workers who died in Ontario after contracting COVID-19.

She said she's seen the poor conditions farm employees have had to work in, adding that she suspects proper health measures are not taking place at these facilities, resulting in the spread of the virus.

"There is very little access to information, I think, for workers both about their labour rights and about their rights concerning health conditions," Soloff said.

"I think many of the people who work in Canada or in the United States are fearful that if they make a fuss about anything, they won't get their visa, they won't get the job, they'll be fired, they'll be sent home."

Submitted by Andalusia Knoll Soloff

She said people in Mexico aren't really aware of the migrant worker situation in Canada and that there is very little public discussion around it.

"There's so many other things going on in the news that there is very little mention of it, if any mention at all," she said.

Soloff asked people in her social networks about the three migrant workers who died on Canadian soil. Some people responded by saying, "If here in Mexico we don't even care about what's happening with the farm workers that work within our own country, how are we going to care about what's happening with farm workers in Canada?"

From her experience, Soloff has noticed many of the migrant workers from Mexico speak idigenous languages and have lower access to education. If Spanish is their second language, this further prevents them from learning about COVID-19 and the working conditions on Canadian farms.

And yet, Soloff said farm workers from Mexico would rather risk contracting COVID-19 than starving to death, as they think they have a low probability of contracting the virus or don't believe in it at all.

"They think that you get sick in the hospital or that you're injected with a sickness in the hospital and that's what kills you or you die from another disease," Soloff said. 

Jacob Barker/CBC

When CBC News spoke with Antonio Hernandez, a migrant worker in Leamington, he said he's not nervous about the virus itself.

"I'm calm. God willing, everything will be fine. As long as we take the necessary precautions, everything will be fine," he said.

Soloff said workers who decide to move to Canada or the U.S. to work in farms likely don't have much of a choice in terms of employment back home.

This is the case for migrant worker Israel. CBC News has agreed not to use Israel's last name.

"I'm here in Canada, because I'm from Guatemala and in our country, there aren't a lot of job opportunities," he said.

"It's very difficult to find a job, so I chose to be here to give my family a better livelihood in Guatemala. It's a bit tough to be here, because I'm away from my family, but it's a sacrifice you make."

A migrant worker from a farm near Simcoe, Ont. died earlier this week from COVID-19, becoming the third Ontario migrant worker to die after contracting the disease. 

At the end of May, 31-year-old Bonifacio Eugenio Romero from Mexico was the first death and Rogelio Muñoz Santos, a 24-year-old worker also from Mexico, died about a week later. Both men worked at farms in Windsor-Essex.