Nearly one in five farms inspected in Southwestern Ontario during the first two weeks of a provincial blitz were issued non-compliance orders for COVID-19 safety measures.
As of Feb. 9, Ontario Ministry of Labour inspectors had conducted 31 field visits in the western region, the majority in the Windsor and Essex County area.
Six COVID-19 related orders were issued, most about physical distancing and masking protocols.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the 19 per cent non-compliance rate isn’t good enough.
“I don’t care what business you’re in, you have to do better,” the Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP said. “You have to be more vigilant today than at any point in the pandemic.”
Last month Ontario announced it's expanding COVID-19 workplace inspections to farm operations as part of a blitz to crack down on businesses failing to comply with virus safety protocols.
The inspections don’t cover migrant workers’ housing, which falls out of the scope of the ministry’s jurisdiction and is federally regulated.
The blitz comes as the province prepares to welcome thousands of offshore farm workers, most from the Caribbean and Mexico, in the coming weeks and months.
About 2,000 migrant workers already have arrived in Ontario this year.
Farms in Southwestern Ontario became hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks last summer.
Last year, 20,500 temporary foreign workers came to Ontario, most of whom lived in communal bunkhouses on farms.
More than 1,780 were infected with COVID-19 and three died from the virus.
“We can’t have a repeat of last year,” McNaughton said.
Provincial officials inspected 718 farms in 2020 and issued 383 orders.
McNaughton said among farms visited last year, 98 per cent did not have a COVID-19 case after the inspection took place.
Although only 31 visits have taken place in Southwestern Ontario so far, he said inspections will “ramp up” in the coming weeks, promising a “substantially higher” number of inspections than last year, including follow-up visits.
New this year, inspectors have the power to ticket immediately should they find an infraction.
The ministry also is working with translators from the Mexican consulate to “ensure workers are heard during the inspections,” and has increased phone line capacity for whistleblowers.
Despite the government’s efforts to enhance safety, one migrant worker advocacy group is blasting both the inspection blitz and the protections in place for offshore employees.
“It makes no sense to undertake blitzes prior to the workers getting here,” said Chris Ramsaroop with Justice 4 Migrant Workers.
He said employers are given advance notice of inspections, rendering them less effective.
“We’re still in a crisis in agriculture," Ramsaroop said. "Nothing has been done to prevent the spread of the pandemic among workers."
“Our concern is the Ministry of Labour is focusing on individual workers when it should be looking at the entire system” that enables unsafe environments, said fellow Justice 4 Migrant Workers advocate Taneeta Doma.
The group also questions the translation partnership with consular officials.
It argues the measure could increase the likelihood of reprisal against workers who speak out, as foreign government officials have the power to deny approval to individuals who apply to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.
“Even with inspections, there are no real measures to protect workers from reprisal if they want to report things that are going on,” Doma said.
Justice 4 Migrant Workers is calling for the province to enact immediate paid sick pay, expanded health and safety regulations for the agriculture industry and strengthening anti-reprisal protection for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions.
Ramsaroop said worker housing needs to be including under the Ontario Health and Safety Act, and that any farms found in non-compliance with COVID-19 restrictions or with virus outbreaks should be publicly named.
Efforts to combat “deep-seeded” systemic racism in the agriculture industry also are essential, he said.
“Migrant farmworkers must endure exploitative, oppressive and dehumanizing conditions to put food on our tables,” Ramsaroop said. “It’s clear what steps need to be undertaken, and the province needs to hear and respect and create legislation that protects workers’ rights.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press