What COVID-19 means for the people who pick Ontario’s fruit and veg

More than 30,000 migrant workers travel to farms in Ontario and Atlantic Canada each year. But the pandemic is posing new challenges for these seasonal labourers
By Mary Baxter - Published on Apr 14, 2020
Under federal guidelines, farmers are responsible for managing their workers' mandatory 14-day quarantine. (iStock.com/jgareri)

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When, on March 21, the federal government exempted foreign agricultural workers from its emergency travel restrictions for non-residents, Brett Schuyler was relieved. “By April 1, we were supposed to have 55 people here,” the Norfolk County farmer says. Thanks to the exemption, workers would still be able to arrive in time for the farming season. 

Schuyler uses the federal government’s seasonal-agricultural-workers program to bring people in from such places as Jamaica, Mexico, and Trinidad. More than 30,000 workers travel to farms in Ontario and Atlantic Canada each year — helping to raise livestock and to grow fruit and vegetables, mushrooms, flowers, and tobacco on wages that meet or slightly exceed minimum wage. Each year on Schuyler's farm, they grow apples and sour cherries, among other kinds of produce. 

But, despite the exemption, getting workers into the fields in time is proving difficult. Days after the restrictions were lifted, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit issued a strict protocol for a mandatory 14-day post-travel isolation period. Because of the new local rules, Schuyler says, “You can't get the number of people that you need.” 

The local public-health order requires that individual farmers obtain approval from the health unit by developing plans for the quarantine period and submitting a list of workers; the number of self-isolating workers in a single bunkhouse must be limited to three, regardless of its capacity. One of Schuyler’s 11 bunkhouses is a 45-person unit. “Three people in a 45-person unit,” he says. “That doesn't make sense.” 

Under federal guidelines, farmers are responsible for managing their workers' mandatory 14-day quarantine — and for paying them for a minimum of 30 hours per week. Twenty people can self-isolate in the same unit, as long as there is enough space for them to practice social distancing and for items such as beds to be placed two metres apart. 

Kristal Chopp, mayor of Norfolk County and chair of the Haldimand-Norfolk board of health, says that the local measures are needed to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 and that the federal government should have arranged mass quarantines, such as the ones that took place at CFB Trenton for people returning from cruise ships. There are only six ventilators in the region’s three hospitals, she says — not enough to deal with an outbreak. “I’m disappointed,” Chopp says of the federal management of the situation. “It left a lot of loopholes.”

Initially, Norfolk County had proposed to arrange for hotel rooms and three meals a day for workers coming to farms that couldn’t meet the health unit’s housing requirements, Chopp says. The county would have paid the upfront expense of $1,800 per worker and then invoiced farmers later.

On April 8, following consultation with local farmers, the county rescinded that aspect of the proposal. “Unfortunately, as a result of the feedback from the farming representatives on our task force, the program was abandoned,” Chopp wrote in a news release. “In my view, this was an unfortunate decision.” (On Monday, the federal government announced it was establishing a $50 million fund to provide farmers across Canada with $1,500 per seasonal worker to cover the costs of the 14-day quarantine.) The release also noted that the health unit had approved 100 applications, allowing for the arrival of 1,200 workers, “in just over a week's time.”

Schuyler believes the local order is unnecessary and that the federal guidelines are enough: “It's really putting farmers in a tough spot.” 

Hiring untrained Canadian workers, he notes, would be an option. “At first, that sounds amazing,” he says, especially as so many people are currently unemployed because of COVID-19. But, he adds, the offshore workers are long-term employees who have worked at the farm for more than five years: “It's your team; it's some of your core people for getting things done right.” He regularly employs more than 100 international workers in a season; at the beginning of April, he had seven on the farm.  

Schuyler says that he is paying his workers for the isolation time, as required, at a rate of $14.18 per hour. He expects the outlay to cost him roughly $1,500 per worker and notes that the pay will be captured on workers' records of employment. Even if someone were to lie about paying workers, he says, the situation could be dealt with through a government audit. And if anyone is not paying their workers through the isolation period, "I wish somebody would report that person," he says. "It's kind of like if somebody's selling drugs — that happens — against the law, but you've got to get it out in the light of day."

The federal compensation program should cover what he is paying workers during their isolation period, he says: "It's not like it's lucrative, but it is very, very appreciated and a big help."

Human-rights activists have raised concerns about the federal government’s decision to make employers responsible for worker safety. Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says that, as there are no national standards for bunkhouses, workers may not to able to avoid high-risk conditions that could promote the spread of the virus. “Many workers have contacted us, and they're afraid to come here, because they know the conditions,” he says. “But they're afraid, saying, ‘If we don't come, we won't be able to come in the future,’ ‘We won't be able to feed our families in this crisis.’”

Hussan, however, takes issue with “piecemeal” local solutions. His organization wants the federal government to replace its guidelines with enforced national controls to protect worker welfare. In British Columbia, he notes, 75 workers  — 63 of whom are migrant farm workers — recently tested positive for the virus. 

His organization attributes that outbreak to poor housing conditions. “In order to avert a human-rights crisis, we need swift action to ensure employers are providing adequate quarantine measures,” Hussan said in a news release. “This includes a monitoring and enforcement unit, real penalties for violating standards, and a mechanism for workers to safely file complaints.” 

Chopp says that the local order will be strictly enforced by bylaw officers and public-health inspectors and that building inspectors will soon also be given enforcement powers. As quarantine periods end, she says, more regulations will be introduced to control the workers’ interactions with the local population: “If we can keep them on the farm, and if we can try to minimize the blending of different groups, then, hopefully, we can at least try to contain the numbers that would be interacting with one another.” 

And if the local program faces criticism for being too tough? “That’s fine,” she says. “We're not willing to gamble with the lives of people.” 

This article has been updated with additional information about federal guidelines for paying temporary farm workers who are in self-isolation.

​​​​​​​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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