A temporary foreign worker from Mexico who came to Canada to work on a farm in Ontario died on Saturday due to COVID-19, as farms in the southwestern part of the province become a major driver for a spike in new cases.
The 31-year-old man had no underlying health issues, said medical officer of health for the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, Dr. Wajid Ahmed.
"Any of these workers who are self-isolating, our team gets in touch with them on a regular basis, almost daily, and we do provide them with translation service," said Ahmed. "We do provide them with some written information in their own native language to help them understand all the details, what's next step to do, how to reach out to us, to EMS or to call for help if they need any of these things, and we do monitor symptoms."
The man was self-isolating in a hotel room before he called emergency services and went to the hospital, said Ahmed. In the last few weeks, workers who were not able to safely self-isolate in bunkhouses provided by their employers were moved to hotels, the health unit reported.
Steve Laurie is responsible for the facilitation of temporary foreign workers to Woodside Greenhouses Inc., the pepper farm in Kingsville, Ont. where the man worked.
Laurie, who said the man's name is Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, said he took the man to the hospital on May 21 for treatment and a COVID-19 test after he said he had a fever.
By May 23, the test came back showing the man had COVID-19, said Laurie, and all migrant workers who the man worked closely with were put into a hotel. Laurie said the man was put into a room by himself.
On May 25, Laurie said the health unit tested the 22 other workers at the facility. Of those, two came back positive, two need to be retested and the remaining were negative.
By Saturday, Eugenio-Romero had trouble breathing and was taken to hospital by EMS, both the health unit and Laurie confirmed.
Laurie said 30 minutes later, the man died, leaving his co-workers upset and worried.
"They're rattled," he said. "It's been a wake-up call for a lot of them."
Laurie added workers would sometimes hide their symptoms so as to not miss pay, but that the company did daily wellness checks which included checking for a fever.
"It's definitely been scary," said Laurie. "You hope these things won't happen to you or anyone you know."
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Labour said it is investigating the death. The Consulate of Mexico in Toronto said it is working with Eugenio-Romero's family for the repatriation of his body.
Workers feel 'unsafe,' says union representative
Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Canada, said he received a call about one month ago from workers at Woodside Greenhouses who said they were concerned because they had a lack of information and proper equipment to protect them from getting infected.
He said he provided workers with pamphlets in Spanish to help educate them on protecting themselves.
But Escobar wants the public to know which farms are under an outbreak — something the Windsor-Essex health unit will not do.
"I don't know why they don't want to be open about this information, but we have spoken about these issues in the past and we think we have witnesses that employers are not providing enough information and personal protective equipment and also these workers are not able to practice social distancing," he said.
Escobar said overcrowded housing units and a failure to meet provincial and federal standards for housing make the spread of the virus very easy.
"Unfortunately we're witnessing that a lot of employers are not complying with the regulations they are supposed to follow," he said, adding many workers from the Windsor-Essex region have reached out because they do not feel safe at their jobs.
Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for the advocacy group, Justice for Migrant Farm Workers. said both levels of government must be held to account for "decades of inaction that have only intensified poor working and living conditions."
"This death and the countless workers who are sick is not simply a tragedy it's negligence by politicians who sacrifice the needs of vulnerable workers while appeasing the interests of the regions powerful agricultural lobby," Ramsaroop said in an email to CBC News.
Farms hit hard by COVID-19
The news of the man's death comes after major spikes in the numbers of COVID-19 cases popped up at farms in the southwestern Ontario region.
In Windsor-Essex, 175 — about 18 per cent — of all COVID-19 cases have been among farm workers from 17 different farms in the region. The Windsor Essex County Health Unit would not confirm which farms or businesses the workers were at, saying the public was not at risk because of these outbreaks.
A farm operation in Norfolk County, south of Simcoe, declared a COVID-19 outbreak this weekend, after 85 migrant workers tested positive for the virus.
The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit said Sunday that five workers have been hospitalized and approximately 25 others who tested positive are showing symptoms of the virus.
The migrant workers are employed by Scotlynn Group in Vittoria, a major producer of sweet corn, watermelon, asparagus and pumpkins. Many workers are from Mexico.
A farm in St. Thomas, Ontario Plants Propagation, had 20 people associated with it test positive this past week and is still waiting on test results for others. In that case, two health units are involved in contact tracing, as the workers lived in London but travelled daily to the Elgin County farm.
Chatham-Kent's health unit reported 145 cases of COVID-19 for that community, with the majority of them linked to an outbreak at Greenhill Produce.
There are now 101 workers at Greenhill Produce who have tested positive for COVID-19. An outbreak was investigated at the end of April, when about 40 cases of the disease were discovered among workers at the greenhouse operation, which also grows peppers. The health unit said those cases were contracted locally, as many of the workers had been in the country anywhere from a few months to one year.
Only six of those cases are still active, according to CK Public Health. Another 95 workers have recovered.
During a news conference Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he would address the issue of infection among migrant workers with public health officials, both to ensure the workers get tested to keep them safe, and to keep the supply chain safe.
When asked if the province would consider increasing inspections and changing laws regarding communal living in cramped bunk houses, Ford said "that's something we can put on the table."
"I've been there and seen the congregate living on these farms. Can we do it a month or so? I just don't think that's a reality," said Ford.
"What we can do is go in and test frequently. I think it's critical that we do. First, we'll do a test and another test in a week and continue testing to keep those people safe and keep the food and supply chain safe as well."
The premier added that more information will be provided in the coming days.
"We'll be asking public health and Ontario health to start going in there and focusing on the migrant workers that are here. There's quite a few of them."
Feds fast-track foreign workers' permits to fill labour gaps
Last month, the federal government began fast-tracking approvals for temporary foreign workers already in Canada, to make them available to fill labour gaps in critical sectors such as agriculture and health care during the pandemic.
The government is allowing workers who meet certain qualifications, to start work as soon as they secure new employment while they wait for their new permit to go through, cutting down the time it takes for approvals from ten weeks or more down to ten days or less.
The goal is to help employers in the agriculture, agri-food and health care sectors meet urgent needs for additional employees during the global health crisis.
At the time of that decision, immigration lawyer Eddie Kadri told CBC News he applauds the move but says caution also must be taken to ensure the health and safety of the workers.
"It's a Band-Aid to stop the bleeding," said Kadri. "But we have to make sure that these workers are safe in the plants that they are working or the farms that they are working. Not only when they are in quarantine for 14 days but when they are on the job site."
Many farm owners were worried in the spring that they wouldn't have the labour needed to harvest crops, fearing the work shortage could lead to a food supply shortage as well.