In a win for Norfolk County farmers, health unit loosens transport rules for migrant workers

·3 min read

In a win for Norfolk County farmers, Haldimand-Norfolk’s interim medical officer of health has loosened the rules on transporting migrant farm workers from the airport.

Dr. Alex Hukowich says up to 12 workers can now ride together on a bus, but only if they test negative for COVID-19 upon landing in Canada.

That was the only change Hukowich recommended after spending six weeks reviewing the strict farm worker quarantine rules set out by his predecessor, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai.

Nesathurai raised the ire of farmers by stipulating:

No more than three migrant workers can quarantine together in a bunkhouse during their mandatory 14-day quarantine upon landing in Canada, and

Workers must be driven from the airport in private cars or taxis, either alone or with their quarantine cohort.

Several hundred farmers drove their tractors to the Simcoe fairgrounds in March to protest the latter rule, which forced larger employers to make dozens of round trips to Toronto to pick up their workforce.

Putting workers on a bus, farmers argue, has the advantage of limiting potential COVID-19 exposure to one bus driver rather than multiple taxi drivers or farm employees.

Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp agrees with farmers on that point, telling Hukowich at a recent board of health meeting she could not see the logic in separating workers who arrived on the same flight.

“The bulk of the transportation has happened already, but there is still potential for additional transmission on that bus,” Hukowich replied.

Hukowich offered rapid antigen testing at the airport as a “reasonable alternative” to the existing rule, since he said the tests, which return results in about half an hour, can be relied upon to determine who does not have the virus.

The catch for farmers is they have to arrange for the rapid tests themselves and pay for a quarantine hotel near the airport for any workers who test positive.

The board of health unanimously approved this new testing option, and Langton-area berry farmer Dusty Zamecnik, who chairs Norfolk’s agricultural advisory board, signalled his support.

“This is great,” Zamecnik told The Spectator. “At least there is an understand that is happening. I hope this is the start of removing more and more roadblocks.”

Zamecnik said while most migrant workers — roughly 3,400 of the 4,800 expected this growing season — have already arrived from Mexico and the Caribbean, there are still some farms that could make use of the rapid testing option to get their workforces into quarantine “more efficiently.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Zamecnik is glad the health unit is listening to farmers again, pointing to a 90-minute meeting he had with Hukowich to discuss the transportation issue.

“I can always respect someone who will look at numbers and figures,” Zamecnik said.

Farmers had grown increasingly frustrated with Nesathurai, who they said refused to meet with them or take their calls to discuss COVID-19 precautions.

Relations soured after Simcoe fruit farmer Brett Schuyler successfully challenged the three-person quarantine limit in court last year, arguing bunkhouse occupancy should be based on maintaining a six-foot separation between workers, as per federal guidelines.

But Nesathurai’s order — designed to reduce the chance of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak during the quarantine period — was upheld on appeal and remains in force.

Hukowich said getting farm workers fully vaccinated against COVID-19 “will solve these problems for next year” since workers will not need to quarantine upon arrival.

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

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