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Farmers confident workers don’t pose flu threat

May 1, 2009  By The Canadian Press

April 29, 2009, Holland Landing, Ont. – Canadian farmers who employ
Mexican migrant workers aren’t stocking up on protective face masks.

April 29, 2009, Holland Landing, Ont. – Canadian farmers who employ Mexican migrant workers aren’t stocking up on protective face masks.

Few harbour fears that swine flu will be imported by farm hands into their rural communities.


Instead, they’re far more concerned about labour shortages and the emotional strain on their seasonal employees – who are often treated like extended family – rather than a fear of becoming infected with the virus that's working it's way around the world.

The federal government announced Monday that it has beefed up its screening process for Mexican workers entering the country. They’ll need to have a fever-check by two doctors, fill out a questionnaire, and undergo a physical.

Ontario averages about 15,000 foreign seasonal workers a year, of which about 8,500 are Mexican and the rest are from Caribbean countries. While many are already hard at work, an influx of more are expected to enter the workforce soon.

Some of them end up just north of Toronto in the Holland Marsh, a flat stretch of fertile farmland, working for vegetable farmer Domenic Riga.

For the last nine years, Riga has been hiring about a couple dozen Mexican migrant workers to help keep his family business running, along with the help of his parents and two brothers.

The Italian family learned Spanish so they could tap into the eager workforce and it’s been a “great experience,” Riga said.

Like many other farmers, he’s more concerned about the workers he’s come to know and rely on and the extra stress they’re dealing with as they fear for their families back home, who they’re working hard to support.

He’s also worried about how his business will suffer if the borders are closed and no one is available to work his fields.

“Among us there is a little sense of unease because we rely heavily on our labour, because everything is hand picked – we are worried,” he said.

“We’re worried for our men, we’re worried for their families back home and we’re worried about the upcoming season, and we hope everything’s going to be all right.”

When he first told his workers about the breaking news of a possible pandemic, they thought he has joking.

“They don’t get a lot of media that they understand here because they are Spanish speaking … and a lot of (what they hear) is hearsay from guys that they meet with,” he said.

“They speak about it but they don’t know the severity of what’s going on.”

Mexico has linked 152 deaths to the virus.

Farmers feel for their workers because in many cases they’ve worked the same fields every year for decades and pour their hearts into their work to help their families, said Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association.

“They come up here so that they can make a better life for their families down in Mexico,” he said.

“They leave with more money in hand over the eight months that they’re in Canada than in two years of doing the similar job down in Mexico.”

Working in Canada can often propel a worker’s family into the middle class, Reaume said.

Riga said the child of one of his workers recently became a doctor because his father worked tirelessly to pay for his education.

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