Tens of thousands of migrant agricultural workers come to Canada every year, many returning to the same communities for decades. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how essential these workers are.
Like other travellers to Canada, incoming workers are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. However, our previous research has shown that accommodations on farms are often crowded, have insufficient sanitation, ventilation, cooking amenities and communication access — all of which pose a challenge for physical distancing.
The federal government announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program during the pandemic to expedite access to migrant workers, as well as an employer-compliance regime with financial support ($1,500 per migrant worker) for employers’ quarantine costs. Though it includes virtual inspections with punitive measures for non-compliance, it’s left farmers on their own to sort out how to comply.
Rather than heed the advice of experts, there has been a mishmash of unco-ordinated measures in the province of Ontario aimed at ensuring migrant workers are practising the 14-day quarantine period upon arrival. Some of them are deeply problematic.
Some migrant worker housing is being cordoned off with caution tape. Brett Schuyler, a farmer in Ontario, says Norfolk-Haldimand Public Health requires employers to “put out perimeters around the bunkhouses.”
In Halton, also in Ontario, a spiritual retreat centre that previously relied on income from summer camps has converted its facilities into a for-profit “isolation zone” for migrant workers, with accommodations divided into zones and areas roped off with caution tape. To move outside of these zones, workers are accompanied by staff to ensure they’re not breaking protocols.
Other groups of returning residents, such as Canadian snowbirds, are not being subjected to this type of “quarantine.”
Not only do these practices further stigmatize migrant workers, but it’s hard to imagine how they could experience such accommodations as anything less than open-air prisons.
Some workers have been told to stay in their bunkhouses, and that not doing so could be grounds for dismissal and removal from Canada. Even after the mandatory 14-day quarantine, some workers we’ve interviewed for upcoming research claim they’re not permitted to leave their bunkhouses, while others are not allowed to be off the property to ride their bikes despite having a low risk of transmission.
Some workers are being prohibited from doing their own grocery shopping, even when they request it. This is a problem for workers who are not being supplied with culturally appropriate groceries. A worker told the Toronto Star that while he understands the need for physical distancing, Canadians can still go out occasionally. “We feel like prisoners,” he said.
Such extreme levels of control, monitoring and policing are arguably discriminatory and have serious implications for the mental health and dignity of migrant workers.
Workers who do leave farms report facing racism. Some we interviewed have been asked for proof of completion of quarantine when grocery shopping and others have been denied entry into establishments.
Public health units have reported they have had a number of calls from the public questioning (or reporting) migrant farm workers being allowed in town.
The Norfolk Public Health Unit distributed Migrant Farm Worker Identification Cards to employers, asking workers to fill them out and carry them — to “document that workers had gone through the mandatory self-isolation as required.” As noted by Dusty Zamecnik, chair of Norfolk’s Agricultural Advisory Board, “anyone else returning from anywhere else should also be receiving a card, but that is not the case.”
Jason Burgess, Norfolk County’s chief administrative officer, defended the cards as voluntary, but they’ve since been discontinued after being criticized for racially profiling workers.
Both the efficacy and the ethics of these cards as “proof of quarantine” were questionable. The cards clearly served little to no purpose in terms of protecting the health of migrant workers, and have raised concerns about ID cards leading to racial profiling and inequities.
Such exclusionary practices are structurally xenophobic, stigmatize a population based on country of origin and contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as international human rights norms. They also send a signal to Canadians that migrant workers are a risk, rather than at risk.
Migrant workers caught COVID-19 here
Migrant workers are not inherently more vulnerable to the virus, nor more likely to be carrying it than Canadians — pre-screening measures mean they generally arrive healthy to Canadian farms. In fact, it’s their living and working situations in Canada, and their exposure to fellow travellers and community members, that put them at risk.
There are roughly 400 cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers so far during the pandemic. Outbreaks have been reported in British Columbia and in Ontario at Greenhill Produce , Highline Mushrooms and recently at Scotlynn Farms.
Tragically, a migrant worker in his 30s, Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, died on May 30 from COVID-19, nine days after testing positive for the disease. He had worked at a farm in southern Ontario
These cases, coupled with concerns raised by migrant workers about crowded housing, lack of hand sanitizers and face masks and delays in accessing health care when workers show COVID-19 symptoms, show that regulatory measures have not been working to protect workers’ health. These workers contracted the virus after arriving in Canada.
Responses to the pandemic that stigmatize and dehumanize migrant workers, curtail their rights or jeopardize their health are, at best, negligence or lack of co-ordination, and, at worst, evidence of systemic racism.
Canada must set its “house in order” and re-imagine public health to include the health of essential migrant workers.