Ontario farmers respond to COVID-19 outbreaks
Some of the COVID-19 outbreaks on Ontario farms can be traced to local recruitment agencies whose contract workers moved from farm to farm. Ontario farmers are calling on the farming community to restrict movement and limit spread.
By Stephanie Gordon
Ontario fruit and vegetable farmers are responding to the recent COVID-19 outbreaks by taking more precautions to limit the spread on their operations.
As the growing season got underway, hundreds of farm employees, including seasonal agriculture workers, across southwestern Ontario tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreaks were located in farming communities such as the Windsor-Essex area, Middlesex-London area, and Haldimand-Norfolk area.
The outbreaks resulted in the death of three Ontario farm workers: Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Muñoz Santos, and Lopez Chaparro.
In the letter written in partnership with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) which represents 3,500 farm families, Ontario’s farmers acknowledge the impact the outbreaks have had in the province.
“As fruit and vegetable farmers, we are devastated by the recent deaths of three Ontario farm workers from COVID-19 and we are very concerned about the recent outbreaks that have affected our farms, our dedicated employees and our ability to produce food for you,” the letter read.
Restricting movement among farms
OFVGA stated that they are uncovering the reasons behind the COVID-19 outbreaks and are working with farmers to address the causes.
“As we learn more about recent outbreaks on local farms, our farmers and our sector are working to quickly remedy issues and prevent them from happening elsewhere,” said Bill George, chair of the OFVGA, in a release. “While we don’t have all the answers and know there might be more challenges ahead, what we have learned is that some recent outbreaks were associated with the use of unregulated local recruitment agencies whose contract workers moved from farm to farm.”
In response, OFVGA says farmers are taking action by calling on all fruit and vegetable farmers to limit the movement of local temporary contract workers from one farm to another to reduce the risk of community spread. This would also mean separating local and international workers to decrease the risk of infection.
In response, OFVGA says farmers are taking action by calling on all fruit and vegetable farmers to limit the movement of local temporary contract workers from one farm to another to reduce the risk of community spread.
According to OFVGA, farmers are also helping to inform workers about available testing and doing their part to make sure workers’ legal rights for job protection and income protection are respected if they have to be isolated.
In Ontario currently, seasonal agriculture workers who test positive for COVID-19 are guaranteed the following major protections, among others:
- Workers cannot be fired for contracting COVID-19, and their job is protected under Ontario’s new infectious disease emergency leave provisions.
- Workers are entitled to compensation benefits through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which will pay 85 per cent of a worker’s take-home pay for the time they are quarantined until they are cleared by a public health official.
- Testing and treatment for COVID-19 is free in Ontario. There is no three-month waiting period to receive Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) coverage. In addition, the province of Ontario will cover the cost of COVID-19 services for uninsured people who do not meet the criteria for OHIP coverage. The expanded coverage was decided on in March as a way to minimize financial barriers for testing and treatment. Workers who are billed for COVID-19-related costs can have the charges reversed, and have, because it is usually done in error.
- For more, visit Fruit and Vegetable’s FAQ: Navigating COVID-19 outbreaks on Ontario farms, which also lists answers in Spanish.
Working with public health
“Growers can do their part but they can’t do it alone,” OFVGA noted, adding that government and local health authorities are also “key to success.”
The OFVGA is calling on local authorities to help the farming communities combat outbreaks by:
- Deploy resources to enforce compliance with local health unit orders to restrict movement of local temporary contract workers between fruit and vegetable farms.
- Ensure that temporary contract agencies comply with Canadian law. This includes being held to the same ethical and legal standards as any regular farm employer.
- Facilitate the availability of province-wide proactive testing of all agri-food employees through expanded deployment of on-farm testing resources.
- Provide financial support and develop workable solutions for farms that are ordered to shut down and for farmers facing economic hardship as a result of such a shut-down.
- Ensure workers that must isolate, even though they test negative for COVID-19, have access to wage compensation.
“The OFVGA looks forward to seeing progress on having unregulated agencies held to the same ethical and legal standards as the federal regulated seasonal agricultural worker program,” stated George. “We all have a responsibility to do the best that we can to keep people safe during this pandemic and there is no tolerance for employers who don’t follow the rules when it comes to public health and worker safety.”
Responding to criticism
The letter written and signed by farm families in partnership with OFVGA also addressed criticism that fruit and vegetable farmers have been receiving surrounding the issues of seasonal agriculture worker rights.
On June 8, The Migrant Workers Alliance for Chance (MWAC) released a report detailing concerns made on behalf of over a thousand migrant workers. The report detailed workers’ experiences with wage theft, lack of COVID-19 precautions by their employer, poor housing conditions and increased surveillance. The Globe and Mail also released their own investigation, including covering how the Canadian federal government plans to “overhaul” the temporary foreign worker program and establish more checks and balances.
“Seasonal farm workers play an essential role on our fruit and vegetable farms. The federal government created the seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP) in 1966 and many of us have been welcoming the same international workers for years (even generations). We care about their health and well-being and we are committed to doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of our employees,” the letter read.
“The federal government created the seasonal agricultural worker program (SAWP) in 1966 and many of us have been welcoming the same international workers for years (even generations). We care about their health and well-being and we are committed to doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of our employees.”
Others in the agriculture community have stepped forward saying they do not support farm employers who neglect the dignity of their workers.
“There are stories out there about farms that aren’t treating their workers properly and I can’t say that’s not true. I mean, it happens. And we don’t support it, and we want to see that stop too,” Cathy Lennon, general manager of Ontario’s Federation of Agriculture, said when interviewed for the FAQ article. Lennon also said the agriculture industry has to set high standards for itself and then hold itself to them.
The letter continued, “Part of this is ensuring that farm workers are treated with respect and dignity, are paid fairly, have access to health care and benefits, and importantly, are safely housed. Our farms, and employee living and working conditions, continue to be regularly inspected by multiple agencies and government. Seasonal agricultural workers have the same labour, human rights and social protections as all other Canadian workers.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic however, all Service Canada employer inspections were conducted virtually or remotely. This virtual inspection prompted advocacy groups to ask how effective they could’ve been.
The Canadian government also increased its non-compliance penalties “to reflect the seriousness with which Government takes disregard of requirements of orders made under the Quarantine Act and/or the Emergencies Act.” Employers found non-compliant after an inspection would be subject to fines ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 per violation, up to a maximum of $1 million. Agriculture employers who were found in violation could also be banned from the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for a specific number of years or permanently, which raised the stakes again for agriculture employers.
The OFVGA letter concluded that as fruit and vegetable farmers in Ontario, “We all have a responsibility to do the best we can to keep people safe during this pandemic and there is no tolerance for employers who don’t follow the rules when it comes to public health and worker safety.”