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Ontario Is Failing Migrant Workers

During this pandemic, we’ve come to realize the importance of the essential workers who do so much for society. We have cheered on our doctors and nurses. We have cheered on grocery workers and delivery drivers. There is one group of essential workers, however, that we have utterly failed.

Every year, tens of thousands of migrant workers come to work in Canada’s agriculture sector. Without them, Canadian farms do not have the labour necessary to harvest the crops that end up on our dinner tables. They have no path to citizenship, they receive low wages, and do difficult work that most Canadians refuse to do.

During COVID-19, these migrant workers have received little appreciation. Worse yet, their employers and our government in Ontario have failed to protect them against this pandemic. They continue to put these workers in harm’s way. The health of migrant workers is sacrificed so that big agriculture operations can turn a profit.

On June 5th, a 24-year old migrant worker died of COVID-19 in Windsor-Essex – the second within a week. The deaths prompted the Mexican authorities to halt the flow of migrant workers to Canada until federal and provincial governments could provide some explanation for why these men had been failed.

What followed was the roll-out of mass testing for migrant farmworkers. (Reports had come in prior that some workers had to get sick to the point where they could not get up for work before they were tested.) The uptake among employers, however, was quite low as they feared losing workers during a vital period of the season.

Then, this last weekend, COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex exploded among agriculture workers. On June 29, Ontario reported 257 new coronavirus cases – 177 were linked to migrant workers in Windsor-Essex.  

Meanwhile, the Ford government has done something unthinkable. Their new 3-point plan for the agriculture sector includes allowing workers who test positive for COVID-19, but are asymptomatic, to keep working. Experts are understandably worried and Windsor’s medical officer, at least, has refused to follow the Ontario government’s new guidance.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what this guidance is supposed to do. It alleviates big agriculture operation’s fears and lets them push migrant workers to work when they are sick. You can say, “well, it’s the workers’ choice to keep working.” The reality is that their position is precarious and if their employer wants them to keep working, they likely will, even if they are COVID-19 positive.

Treated like disposable labour

One story, in particular, has stuck out for me. Highlighted in a new report, migrant workers told the story of an outbreak at Ontario Plants Propagation in St. Thomas. Workers found out that a shipment coming from a U.S. farm which was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.

What did management do? They gave all citizens and permanent resident workers the day off. The migrant workers were made to manage that shipment. At least they got extra pay for it, right? An extra $8. No, not per hour, in total.

A few days later, the first COVID-19 case was reported. The outbreak grew. But despite this, migrant workers were told to continue working with no changes to workplace conditions.

Who’s to blame?

It’s past time that we stop letting the Ontario government’s excuses slide. In British Columbia, the government implemented a comprehensive plan for migrant workers back in April. There, they have avoided the outbreaks we are witnessing in Ontario. 

Meanwhile, the Ford government’s plan came just a few weeks ago in June (AFTER outbreaks on multiple farms came to light).  The governments’ approaches have been so vastly different, that during the dispute with Mexico, migrant workers were still being sent to British Columbia.

A report by a migrant worker advocacy group also put the blame on our governments. Ontario’s rules, they say, focused solely on the risk of migrant workers bringing COVID-19 to Ontario communities and made no precautions for the workers themselves. Their report is dedicated to the Essex-Windsor migrant workers who lost their lives in recent weeks.

The dedication reads as follows: “They died alone, separated from family and friends. Lives lost not because of an unavoidable tragedy but lives stolen as a direct result of decisions made by federal and provincial governments”

Tell us what you think!

Every week we’ll be including a question for you. We want to hear about your thoughts on the issues we’re discussing. The top responses will then be included in next week’s newsletter.

What are your thoughts on our failure to protect migrant workers during COVID-19?

While you weren’t looking.

The over-looked news of the week.

  • The Ontario government and two psychiatrists were found liable for the damage they caused to inmates at a mental health facility. Between 1966 and 1983, young men at this facility received treatment that bordered on torture. For instance, they were forced to take mind-altering drugs such as LSD, were deprived of sleep, and were handcuffed nude to other men while forcibly confined. 
  • The blue licence plates are over. By the end of this week, the government expects to stop issuing them altogether. The redesign was a pet project of the Progressive Conservative government but hit several road bumps as the new design made licence plates hardly visible at nights. 
  • Toronto City Council shot down motions to cut the police budget by 10%, opting instead to pass motions for body cameras and new response measures for mental-health-related calls. 

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