Migrant agricultural workers are important members of our communities – they deserve respect and protection during the COVID-19 crisis

RNAO’s speaking out for vulnerable populations continues today with one last and often forgotten group, one that is vital to our food chain and one that has been late in receiving policy attention in government plans: migrant agricultural workers. We are tremendously grateful to Dr. Susana Caxaj, RN, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, and Oleksandra Budna, communications and member relations lead, Alliance for Healthier Communities, for the following article.

On Sunday evening, hundreds of workers at Greenhill Nursery were exposed to COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 47 individuals of the largely Jamaican, Guatemalan and Mexican workforce have tested positive. This outbreak is one of many seen in the agri-food sector and includes farms in BC, and meat plants in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Disheartening as these outbreaks are, they are not surprising given the poor working and living conditions that these essential workers often find themselves in. 

There are several reasons why those of us who work with migrant workers are concerned about the impacts that COVID-19 pandemic would have on these men and women. This group’s housing is often inadequate even outside of pandemic circumstances. Migrant farmworkers typically live in employer-provided housing on farms which are often crowded, lack proper ventilation, and are removed from basic health services and amenities.

We have also witnessed the many barriers that make it difficult for workers to get help when they are sick.  Many Alliance for Healthier Communities members, community-governed primary health care organizations offering health and social services, work in various regions of the province to address those barriers. However, not all migrant workers have access to a community health centre that can offer culturally safe primary care and mental health supports. Now, with COVID-19 a threat to us all, this workforce is one of the most at risk groups because some employers are not supporting workers to practice physical distancing effectively. And if they do get sick, in many regions, workers may have language barriers and even face discrimination in this climate of fear. 

Over the past month, advocates, community health providers and academic experts have asked authorities to enforce and oversee accommodation for migrant workers that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We also have urged government authorities to provide clear and rigorous workplace standards that promote physical distancing and other important infection control strategies. While guidance documents released by the Employment and Social Development Canada and Ontario Ministry of Health are steps in the right direction, a lot more needs to be done to ensure clear communications for both employers and workers, as well as more proactive inspections to keep workers healthy and safe.

As many of us have made clear before, so much responsibility – and really, power – to oversee the health and safety of this workforce has been left in the hands of employers. We know many employers want to do the right thing but we cannot expect them to contribute finances and implement public health measures without both oversight and support. The BC government has committed and begun to provide hotel accommodation to migrant agricultural workers upon arrival into the province until they complete their 14 days of quarantine. Ontario should do the same so that workers have a better chance of arriving on farm healthy. This promising first step must be followed with more commitment to keep workers healthy and safe once they arrive on the farm to work.

Because as shared by an anonymous farmworker at Greenhill, when outbreaks occur, there has been no system in place to prevent the spread. Since workers share kitchen spaces, kitchen utensils and washrooms, these men and women require and deserve clear and transparent housing standards that give them peace of mind. In their words, “This could have been avoided, this is a part of negligence.” 

Testing days upon arrival for all workers is another measure we’ve been calling for since they are coming from different households, and may be traveling in a variety of ways to get to Canada. As Ontario government develops the details of its COVID-19 action plan for marginalized groups living in group settings, it needs to ensure migrant agricultural workers are included to prevent future outbreaks.

When the workers become sick, they need to be able to trust that our healthcare system will protect their health and their livelihoods. They need to know that they will have access to relief funds, sick leave, and appropriate quarantining measures, and the legal status to refuse unsafe work.  Given the many barriers this group faces, they will need support, in their own language, and clear path to access it, without their employer’s involvement.  

These essential workers have been leaving their families to help put food on our tables for decades. They are important members of our communities. And they deserve our respect and protection. They deserve to live in a healthy and safe environment that gives them the best chance of avoiding exposure to COVID-19.