Norfolk farmers protest ‘burdensome’ health unit rules for quarantining migrant workers

·6 min read

The rumble of more than 200 tractors pulling into the Simcoe fairgrounds on Tuesday turned into a roar of discontent from farmers voicing their displeasure at what they consider onerous rules for quarantining migrant workers.

Several farmers told a gathered crowd that public health orders imposed by Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer of health, make it difficult to get workers through quarantine and into the fields in a timely fashion, which farmers contend threatens food security.

Norfolk’s farm community “is in a state of crisis,” said Frank Schonberger, an asparagus farmer from Frogmore who organized Tuesday’s protest.

“(Health unit orders) come at us out of nowhere sometimes, without any reasoning,” added Tiffany Chanyi, a vegetable grower in Windham Centre, about rules she said are implemented with no effort on Nesathurai’s part to collaborate with farmers on workable solutions.

An order limiting bunkhouse occupancy to no more than three workers put in place last spring was met with a legal challenge that ended after a win for the health unit in divisional court.

A new rule announced last week says farm workers cannot be transported from the airport by bus, and instead must be driven in private vehicles with their quarantine cohort.

That means no more than three workers per car, or if they are quarantining alone in hotel rooms, each worker needs to be picked up separately.

Farmers are upset they now have to make multiple trips from Norfolk to Toronto to pick up workers who have already been together on an airplane, while farmers in other counties can use buses as usual.

Nesathurai said this rule actually helps farmers, since if someone on the bus later tests positive for COVID-19, everyone on the bus is considered a close contact and has to go into isolation, meaning they are lost to the workforce.

“We put in measures to try and reduce these outbreaks from happening in the future,” Nesathurai said. “We’ve seen transmission in buses, so we’re concerned about them.”

Also new this year, the health unit does not allow farm workers quarantining in hotel rooms to go outside for fresh air breaks, and, while in quarantine, workers are left to administer their own COVID-19 swab tests.

Add it all up, Schonberger said, and morale on Norfolk farms is “at an all-time low” due to “dysfunctional, burdensome policies” that he said do not make quarantine safer for migrant workers or other employees.

Schonberger pointed out that instead of one bus driver sitting behind a Plexiglas shield, farmers must now send multiple drivers in different vehicles, putting more people at risk of contracting the virus.

Nesathurai defended the orders as necessary to protect the workers and contain COVID-19 outbreaks on farms, which he says overtax health unit resources and could hamper the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

“If we have more outbreaks, that means we have to assign staff from the vaccine program and other programs to support outbreaks,” he said.

“Outbreaks also affect the broader community. It can lead to exposures beyond people who live at the farm residence, and it can also lead to greater public heath restrictions.”

The federal government has offered farmers a $1,500 subsidy per worker to help farmers cover costs during their isolation period, but farmers want Ottawa to take over the quarantine program.

“Our job is to grow safe food. It is not to administer a 14-day quarantine period that is set up to take you down,” said John Cooper, a Simcoe berry farmer who had a migrant worker test positive after landing in Toronto earlier this month.

What followed, Cooper said, was an overlapping response from the local health unit, provincial Labour Ministry and Service Canada that ate up 50 to 60 hours a week with inspections, phone calls and sitting on hold with government agencies.

“That is unmanageable once you start farming,” Cooper said. “Help us to get through this quarantine period so we can get back to what we do best.”

“It makes no sense at all” that Norfolk farmers face greater restrictions than those in force in every other jurisdiction in Ontario, Schonberger said.

“We want the same rules that are applied to everybody else,” Chanyi agreed.

Nesathurai said the rules need to be tighter in Haldimand-Norfolk since the region brings in more farm workers per capita than anywhere in Ontario, increasing the risk of outbreaks.

Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp, who chairs the board of health, took the microphone to assure farmers of her support and thank them for persevering through a difficult year. Chopp explained that the board does not have the legal authority to rescind Nesathurai’s orders, nor is the doctor obligated to consult board members before setting the rules.

“They have been entirely Dr. Nesathurai’s orders,” Chopp said.

Board members met for several hours behind closed doors on Monday and decided to request an “urgent meeting” with Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer, and Health Minister Christine Elliott to address the farm worker quarantine issue.

“All options are on the table,” Chopp told the crowd. “If that requires the board of health all resigning as a whole, we’re prepared to do that.”

The board does have the power to fire Nesathurai, who has already announced his intention to step down in May.

Tuesday’s rally drove home farmers’ frustration with what they describe as an ongoing lack of communication from the health unit.

“We think it’s time to be trusted and respected to make our own decisions. We may not be medical professionals, but we are professionals in our industry,” Chanyi said.

One voice missing from the conversation was that of migrant farm workers themselves, who have begun to arrive in recent weeks.

Nesathurai, who did not attend the protest, told reporters on Monday that his orders are designed with the safety of farm workers and the broader community in mind.

“First and foremost, migrant farm workers are people, and they deserve all the protection of the public service that all other residents of Canada are entitled to,” he said, adding that “not a single business” has not been affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

“We all have to accept that there are certain restrictions we have to do to manage COVID-19 until we get the population vaccinated,” he said, adding that he has to consider the health of all 110,000 residents and 4,00 farm workers in Haldimand-Norfolk, and cannot cater all rules to the minority of farmers who employ migrant workers.

The health unit has reported positive cases among migrant workers at six farms so far this year, including a new outbreak — a single case triggers an outbreak declaration from public health — on Tuesday at Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes, near Bloomsburg.

Migrant workers, Nesathurai said, are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 since they live in group settings. He noted that Norfolk saw the worst-case scenario play out last year when Juan López Chaparro, a farm worker from Mexico, died as a result of the large outbreak at Scotlynn Growers in Vittoria.

“We’re doing our very best under the most trying circumstances to keep the community safe.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator