Has Ontario changed its approach to migrant-worker housing?

Moving into the second summer of the pandemic, there’s some new guidance — but advocates say more is needed to keep migrant workers safe during COVID-19
By Mary Baxter - Published on Mar 29, 2021
The federal government has held consultations on how to improve oversight of migrant-worker housing. (Mary Baxter)

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When Oscar arrived from Guatemala to work in an Essex County greenhouse in March 2020, he was worried about the COVID-19 pandemic. At his employer-arranged housing, he shared a bedroom with three others. “One was beside me,” he says. “The other one was on top of me [in a bunk bed], and the other one on the other side.”

Oscar, whose last name has been withheld to protect his identity, now works for a new greenhouse employer and rents a house with three other people. With independent accommodation comes the ability to ensure physical distancing, the 20-year-old says: “I have my own room.”

Other agricultural and agri-food workers this year haven’t been as lucky, says Santiago Escobar, a national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, who provided translation assistance for Oscar — and they have concerns about employer-provider housing that doesn't allow for proper physical distancing. The union, he says, fields up to six calls a day from workers wanting help to get open work permits so that they can move to a job with safer accommodations: “A big part of the problem is overcrowded housing.” 

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In 2020, there were more than 1,780 cases of COVID-19 and three deaths among migrant agricultural workers in Ontario. Poor and overcrowded housing conditions were widely recognized as a key factor in the spread of the virus among these workers. Despite federal consultations on how to improve oversight of worker housing and the release of a provincial strategy to address worker safety in terms of the virus, “the picture compared with last year is still the same,” Escobar says.

Outbreaks still occur — 40 cases of the virus were confirmed on Ontario farms between February 28 and March 13. And more transmissible variants create new risks, says Donald Cole, a doctor who specializes in migrant-worker environmental health and sits on the migrant-worker-health expert working group: “That means that, within a congregate setting, [there is the potential for] 20 to 25 per cent more people to get COVID from one case of COVID than last year.”

What’s changed since last summer

Federally, housing-related protective measures have focused on quarantine protocols for workers’ arrival in Canada and on isolation requirements for workers who contract the virus. The provincial strategy has generated guidance on items such as configuring worker housing for physical distancing, and sourcing mobile housing. 

Both governments have also provided funding — such as the $26.6 million joint government On-Farm Worker Safety Improvement Program — to help employers adjust accommodations. (The province recently allocated another $10 million to support another round of funding under this program, says a spokesperson for Ernie Hardeman, Ontario minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs.)

Locally, some medical officers of health have used Section 22 public-health orders to mandate actions over and above health units’ regular duty to inspect boarding and lodging premises. The Windsor–Essex County Health Unit, for instance, requires employers to group workers in the same cohorts for work and housing. The order also mandates, among other things, public-health inspections of buildings before they're occupied, municipal approvals for dwellings, cleaning schedules, and the provision of sanitizers. (The health unit also vets housing for employer applications to the federal government to bring in foreign workers.)

brown fields with a building and a fence
Federally, housing-related protective measures have focused on quarantine protocols for workers’ arrival in Canada and on isolation requirements for workers who contract COVID-19. (Mary Baxter)

The holes in the current system

“We don’t have decent guidelines,” Cole says, noting there is no federal standard for on-farm worker housing. Provincial and local public-health standards do address inspection and sanitation of worker housing, he says, “but there is not a national [one] recognizing the problem with COVID and infectious-disease transmission.”

Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the 221-member Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, says that one is anticipated and that many expect it will set a permanent upper limit on worker-cohort numbers — “six to eight, we’re hearing.” The lack of such a standard, he says, has stalled some growers’ plans for building or renovating worker housing, because they don’t yet know the specifications.

Cole says that factors used to approve housing and occupancy numbers remain unchanged and don’t take physical distancing into account. Requirements for providing space in kitchens, for example, are not included in occupancy calculations, he says, and inspection checklists don’t address ventilation in terms of infection prevention and control — even though there’s federal recognition that aerosol transmission is a risk.     

Philip Wong, environmental-health manager with the Windsor–Essex County Health Unit, confirms that these formulas and guidelines remain the same but are in the process of being updated. However, when inspectors visit housing, he says, “they do apply an infection-prevention-control lens.”

Escobar praises the Windsor-Essex County health unit's involvement but questions the overall effectiveness of government inspections, including the proactive inspections the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development will be making throughout the growing season. They’re not resulting in any charges being laid, he says. “I think the problem is the lack of political will to protect these workers," he says. "If they [governments] don’t want to address their [migrant-worker] issues, they will say, ‘It’s beyond our capacity.’”

Health inspectors haven't laid any housing-related charges since the start of the pandemic, Wong says, adding that public-health inspectors can take actions such as imposing work orders if a hazard is detected. A labour ministry spokesperson says by email that they don’t cover on-farm bunkhouses, because they are the responsibility of local public-health units and the federal government.

Service Canada can also inspect housing to verify employer compliance with immigration-refugee-protection regulations and lay penalties. But these inspections are virtual and remote during the pandemic. If an investigation discovers a case of COVID-19, "Service Canada investigators will immediately report this information to local public health officials who will take action as necessary,” an Employment and Social Development Canada spokesperson says by email.

The greatest challenge, says Cole, is the absence of data that could be used to model projections of the virus’s impact on migrant workers — and to identify which housing issues create the greatest risks. A Public Health Ontario spokesperson says by email that the agency does not separate migrant-farm-worker cases of the virus from those within a more general farm-worker category, so it’s unknown how many employer-housed workers have contracted the virus. Data on violations of federal regulations lumps housing complaints with complaints about wages and working conditions, says the Employment and Social Development Canada spokesperson. 

What more can be done?

According to a March ESDC news release, federal talks are expected to result in the coordination of provincial and federal oversight of migrant-worker housing. Input from the fall consultations on a proposal for mandatory requirements for employer-provided accommodations “will inform the government’s actions in the coming months,” the release says.

Sbrocchi says the pandemic has already taught greenhouse vegetable growers a great deal about keeping their workers safe. Working with other agricultural sectors and the province, “we created a very robust toolkit that involves screening,” he says. “You name it.”

Escobar says he’s encouraged by the political discussion — he’s just not happy with its timing: “That conversation had to happen a year ago.” Getting workers vaccinated as soon as possible is the best solution, he says, something Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health has advocated.

Hardeman’s spokesperson says that workers in congregate settings are included in Phase 2 of the vaccination rollout, which is expected to begin in April.

Cole agrees that vaccination is important, but he emphasizes the need for better housing standards and ventilation. "In Ontario, we have an internal responsibility system in most workplaces where workers can oversee, suggest, advocate, etc., changes to improve health and safety conditions in their workplace," he says. “Those things happen on very few [farms] — the labour standards [for joint health and safety committees] are such that it's only, like, six agricultural sectors and doesn't include most of horticulture. So you don't have a structure which observes and remedies from the bottom up."

“Until you have that, it’s hard to expect things to be fundamentally different,” he says. “That’s not trying to blame anybody; it’s trying to say we need a rethink of the way we treat agricultural labour.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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