Migrant workers: Toil and suffer for our benefit

di Priscilla Pajdo del July 1, 2020

TORONTO - Ontario has seen a jump in new covid-19 cases. The Province reported an increase of 257 new confirmed positive cases (June 29). A concentration of new cases (177) were reported in the Windsor-Essex region among the migrant worker population.

Mass Covid-19 testing is underway across the agricultural farm sector. The increase in positive tests is attributable to the targeted asymptomatic testing that occurred in the Agri-farm community last week.

Nearly 69% of all new cases in the Province are in the migrant worker population in the Windsor-Essex region.

That region has identified six outbreaks in the Agri-farm sector. Two are in the municipality of Kingsville and four in Leamington. The two municipalities still remain in phase one of the Province’s return to normalcy plan, on the basis of the rise in cases in these areas.

The Province is sending in additional resources to help control the outbreak. The Middlesex/London Health unit has stepped in with additional support to assist in contact tracing and case management.

Last week, Ontario announced a three-point plan to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 on farms and in the community. This plan includes ongoing, and expanded, on-site testing, access to employment benefits/supports, and new public health guidelines.

Part of the new guidelines allow for asymptomatic workers to continue working provided they follow public health measures in their workplace to minimize the risk of transmission.

Advocates for change argue that after working very long hours, these asymptomatic workers return to housing where, often times, 15-20 workers are accommodated in the same bunkhouse. Such congregate living settings make it difficult to contain the spread of the virus.

For these Advocacy groups a change in the “model” is necessary. More must be done to address working condition and labour rights of migrant workers. Even the Premier has publicly acknowledged that there are some “fly-by-night” labour management operators active in the sector.

But, Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says Ontario’s plan to allow access to employment benefits and supports for migrant workers are insufficient, if not misleading. According to Hussan, in an interview with the CBC, the Ontario Labour Ministry excludes agricultural workers from minimum wage, overtime pay and days off, to name a few.

Seasonally, the region employs approximately 8,000 temporary foreign workers at any one of 176 farms in the Windsor-Essex county. Migrant workers are essential to the Agri-farm sector and the community. Ontario depends on them and they are risking their lives under the current circumstances.
Since the onset of the pandemic, three migrant workers have died after contracting Covid-19, in Ontario. Most recently, June 20, a previously healthy 55-year old Mexican father of four succumbed to Covid-19.

Hussan speaks to unsafe working conditions and to the fear of losing their livelihood that prevents migrant workers from speaking up about unsafe workplace conditions.

The issues are longstanding, and not a credit to Ontario society.

Advocates on their behalf point to their importance to our society. They are “essential”. They “grin and bear it”. They may be “replaceable”, but they are not “expendable”.

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