In Canada, we are all greatly indebted to the essential workers who’ve been toiling through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those who work in public spaces with added personal risk. And for those of us safely locked-down at home, as the months passed, as we viewed myriad depictions of Rorschach-inspired virus splotches, as we learned of global hunts for personal protective equipment (PPE), and as we sang countless 20-second tunes to perfect the timing of our handwashing, we also learned the stark lesson of how utterly dependent we are on the brave presence of “essential workers”: medical professionals, grocery and drug store staff, transportation workers, as well as farmers and migrant workers. It’s easy to applaud and celebrate the success of essential workers, but we really say ‘thank you’ when we listen to their hardships, vulnerabilities, and make every effort to meet their needs.

Clearly, the relatively precarious status of foreign migrant workers—traveling far from home, working without benefit of Canadian citizenship, and living/working in dependent, communal environments—demanded specialized attention and focus.

For context, it is important to remember the speed with which levels of government and employers had to move in order to respond in the early stages of the pandemic crisis. This was true of medicine, of supply chain, and of agriculture. As soon as the federal government initiated a lockdown with travel restrictions in mid-March, there were immediate and alarming calls for migrant worker exemptions, including from Ken Wall, CEO of Sandy Shore Farms, “Without access to the migrant worker program…90-95 per cent of the vegetables and the fruits that are normally produced and harvested in Canada will not see the light of day.”1

Within days, on March 20th, the federal government acted to ensure and prioritize food security by lifting the travel restrictions on incoming agricultural workers. The only caveat at that time was from Bill Blair, Canada’s Public Safety Minister, who stipulated that all arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days. This was not only for the protection of Canadians, but also for the workers coming from various countries. Quebec Premier Legault eagerly suggested that if a company wanted to charter planes to bring workers to Canada, the “federal government would be willing to welcome them.”2 Again acting quickly, on March 27th, the federal government released a fuller set of pandemic-specific guidelines to ensure the health and safety of migrant workers3, and laying out the responsibilities of employers to prepare for their arrival.

Canadians heard about “flattening the curve” and strived to “plank the curve”, but had we paid enough attention to our steep, steep learning curve?

The political rush to lock down the country with lightning speed was bound to include zigzagging, moving and missed targets, and even, perhaps, incidents of ‘friendly fire.’ Similarly, the essential service sectors would struggle to respond and comply rapidly amid this chaos. Grocery store practices changed weekly, shifting focus from PPE to plexiglass shields, from home delivery to vulnerable shopper hours, from toilet paper panic to fresh food hygiene. Even our expert medical community was struggling with trial and error attempts to solve an ongoing, and as yet unsolved pandemic.

In the agricultural sector, farmers were to facilitate and oversee the mandatory 14-day quarantine of arriving workers, monitor for illness on an ongoing basis, and ensure a return to isolation should an infection arise. The typical communal living accommodations and facilities presented immediate challenges to provide the needed social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting. Employers were to pay full wages and benefits during mandated isolation periods and workers would absolutely not work while ill. If needed, for compliance with quarantine or social distance living, hotels were suggested over bunkhouses, and at the employer’s expense4.

For farmers and the 60,000 dependent migrant workers arriving to be housed and watched over, the humanitarian stakes were high, and so were the logistical demands. The perilous learning curve of other essential services was now in front of agriculture. Oversight and compliance for their practices was assured by the federal department of Employment and Social Development Canada and its farm inspectors. But the government had its own workers to protect, so virtual inspections replaced physical visits, and resultant errors brought dire consequence. It’s worth noting that doctors also began to provide medical services virtually to their patients in the national effort to “plank” that curve, with, no doubt, at times concerning results. In addition to the federal government, provincial and local public-health units were active agents of oversight for the temporary foreign worker program, resulting in what has been deemed a ‘jurisdictional quagmire’5. Not ideal and, not effective.

After three months, as was the case among other essential worker groups in healthcare and food processing, agriculture witnessed COVID-19 infections appear, rapidly spread, and saw some workers tragically die. On Ontario farms, from Mexico, Rogelio Munoz Santos, aged 24, Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, aged 316, and Juan Lopez Chapparo, aged 55, all died of COVID-19 over May and June of this year, while many others suffered infections and/or had to fight for their lives in hospitals. Chapparo, who leaves four children in Mexico, had “been coming to Canada since 2010” to help plant and harvest the crops Canadians depend upon7.

Awareness of these farm tragedies has brought strong, pragmatic responses from all levels of government: federal, provincial, municipal, as well as advocacy groups. In the Windsor, Leamington, and Norfolk areas of Ontario, deaths and infection rates attracted the attention of Ontario Premier Ford, local MPPs, Ministers, and health officials. The focus of Ford’s daily press conferences, which had been centered on elderly deaths in nursing homes, shifted to identification of error and interventions in agriculture. The province would join with the federal government to complete physical inspections of farm living conditions and COVID safety compliance. The province would take a proactive approach to assessment by directing the Ontario health units to immediately begin testing all workers on the farms. In one area, about a “dozen” staff were dispatched from the Windsor-Essex health unit. Hotels were “secured” and “overseen from a health perspective” so farm workers would have a safe place to isolate. The Mayors of key towns such as Leamington and Kingsville had discussions with the Premier. The Red Cross was brought in to help on farms, and the Canadian military services were made available if needed. In mid-June the Ontario government made $15M available to farmers to help offset the costs of PPE and enhanced cleaning and disinfection8.

At the community level, a variety of organized support groups advocated for workers, offering support and solidarity. For example, two community protests were held in Leamington in late June. The March for Migrant Workers Rights was a honking drive-by caravan of vehicles, going past farms, to draw attention to the workers’ living and working conditions. “We want them to know we recognize them as essential workers and they’re important to us and our community,” said organizer Elizabeth Ha9. The second protest was a march to demand mandatory testing.

Among the 20,000 migrant workers housed in Ontario, a Globe and Mail survey of health units estimates that, as of July 3rd, more than 950 workers are currently suffering from infection10. But testing is key to discovering the extent of illness. According to the Globe and Mail, 3,000 of 8,000 workers in Windsor-Essex had been tested as of July 3rd, with more tests ongoing.

This situation is far from perfect; there is lots of room for improvement. But there is useful response and action, and it is multi-faceted. Finally, the voices of migrant workers are reaching Canadians and their plight is in the spotlight. While Canada is working to bring improved health and safety to agricultural workplaces; much work lies ahead. The lives of Canada’s farmworkers, the health of our nation’s farm operations, and the security of our food supply depend upon the success of these efforts.

EDITOR’S UPDATE:
On July 31, 2020 the CBC reported that the federal government will be investing $58.6 million to protect migrant farm workers from COVID-19 and to address outbreaks on farms. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “There are lots of changes we need to make and we need to continue to work on supporting these people and these families as they support us.”

  1. Lupton, A. (2020, March 17). COVID-19 restrictions on migrant workers will be devastating, Ontario farmers warn | CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/covid-19-restrictions-on-migrant-workers-will-be-devastating-ontario-farmers-warn-1.5500269
  2. Page, Julia, and Ainslie MacLelland. “Ottawa Will Allow Temporary Foreign Workers, International Students into Canada | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 20 Mar. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-farmers-covid19-1.5501421
  3. LaFleche, Grant. “Ottawa Releases Migrant Farm Worker COVID-19 Guidelines.” Stcatharinesstandard.com, 30 Mar. 2020, www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/news/niagara-region/2020/03/30/ottawa-releases-migrant-farm-worker-covid-19-guidelines.html
  4. Ibid.
  5. Blaze Baum, Kathryn and Grant, Tavia. “Ottawa didn’t enforce rules for employers of migrant farm workers during pandemic.” The Globe and Mail, 13 July, 2020, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-how-ottawas-enforcement-regime-failed-migrant-workers-during-the/
  6. Rodriguez, Sofia. “Third Ontario migrant worker dies of COVID-19.” CBC News, 21 July, 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/third-ontario-migrant-worker-dies-of-covid-19-1.5621487
  7. Ruby, Michelle. Migrant worker who died was father of four.” Brantford Expositor, 22 June, 2020. www.brantfordexpositor.ca/news/local-news/migrant-worker-who-died-was-father-of-four
  8. Ontario Federation of Agriculture. (Updated 17 July, 2020) Summary of government financial assistance for Ontario farm businesses, https://ofa.on.ca/resources/summary-of-government-financial-assistance-for-ontario-farm-businesses/
  9. Barker, Jacob. ”Leamington, Ont., rallies behind migrant workers as 96 farm workers test positive for COVID-19.” CBC News, 28 June, 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/migrant-worker-march-caravan-leamington-1.5630551
  10. Blaze Baum, Kathryn and Grant, Tavia. “Confusion as health unit effectively shuts down farm operation over COVID-19 cases.” The Globe and Mail, 2 July, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-confusion-as-health-unit-effectively-shuts-down-farm-operation-over/