Mexican temporary workers on a Pelham farm in 2017. Workers are now following physical distancing guidelines. VOICE FILE

Farms, medical professionals do their part to keep temporary workers healthy

On April 24, the federal government informed employers using the temporary foreign worker program that they could face fines up to $1 million and be named publicly if they violated COVID-19 regulations to quarantine all international arrivals for 14 days, and provide safe physical distancing guidelines for workers.

“They’re extremely high fines, but they’re meant to be a deterrent for people breaking the rules,” Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association chair Bill George told the National Post. “We’re going to do the best we can, we just need a consistent application of the rules to know what the rules are ahead of time.”

Here in Niagara, it appears that enforcement is ongoing — along with healthcare options for the migrant workers.

“Proactively, our staff at Niagara Region Public Health (NRPH) called every employer across Niagara— approximately 250 farms,” NRPH Communications Consultant Kerri Stoakley told the Voice.

“We provided health teaching and education to the employer on their obligations around the ongoing monitoring of their employees’ health [even if they arrived prior to the border closure]. Infection control educational material was provided.”

One healthcare provider says that farms appear to be following the rules.

“We did find out from [Niagara Region Public Health] that the first 11 farms that had workers did isolate them for 14 days, and about 10 of those farms have already gone through that isolation period and are starting to work and maintaining that physical distancing,” Nancy Garner, Executive Director of Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines told the Voice on April 21. Quest has provided health care outreach to temporary foreign workers since 2011, and Garner and health worker Moises Vasquez said they had already virtually screened about 50 individuals so far during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, they said they had 482 clients. Funding operates mostly on a grant from the Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brandt Local Integrated Health Network.

“Migrant workers are also part of the heroes in this,” Vasquez said of those working in the fields. “We must ensure they are getting primary care services and supplies.”

Part of that is ensuring the workers have access to the technology necessary to do a virtual medical checkup.

“[They’ve been] very supportive, I would say from our end,” Vasquez said of the farm employers. “We have been able to coordinate those virtual health promotions for the workers — they are ensuring they have access to the internet and smartphones. That’s the key.”

The actual physical enforcement of living and working conditions, however, is up to a three-level combination of the local NRPH, the provincial labour ministry, and federally-run Service Canada.

In Pelham, Fire Chief and Chief Bylaw Enforcement Officer Bob Lymburner said that the Town will conduct its own farm inspections, but only related to fire code. He said inspections hadn’t started as of April 23.

“We usually start in May,” Lymburner said.

That, of course, brings up the risks involved with living arrangements. Traditionally, many workers have lived in bunkhouses with several others, making the possibility of an outbreak a deep concern. However, partly because there seems to be fewer workers in the region so far this season, accommodations may have improved in that regard.

In mid-April, the federal government announced a subsidy for qualified farms that comes out to about $1,500 per temporary worker, given the requirement for initial quarantine.

“We do understand that farmers have had to look at alternative accommodations for people,” Garner told the Voice. “But after they’ve gone through the isolation period, and are symptom-free, we’ll have to keep continuing to monitor that if anybody becomes symptomatic. But so far, things are okay. Obviously, if somebody within a bunk becomes symptomatic, everybody in that house would have to be tested.”

The situation is yet another that highlights the stark economic reality of our time — that those on the lower end of the financial ladder are often doing crucial work at higher risk.

“Unsafe housing and lack of labour and immigration rights has put migrant farm workers at immense risk,” a statement from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) said.

“In order to avert a human rights crisis, we need swift action to ensure employers are providing adequate quarantine measures — this includes a monitoring and enforcement unit, real penalties for violating standards, and a mechanism for workers to safely file complaints.”

That statement came on the heels of a COVID-19 outbreak in early April among temporary foreign workers in British Columbia. Then, in late April, 47 workers — including several migrants who had been in the country at least four months —tested positive for the virus at a greenhouse in Chatham-Kent.

One province, New Brunswick, has temporarily banned the employment of temporary foreign workers.

MWAC’s Niagara organizer, Sonia Aviles, told the Voice that in a normal peak growing season, approximately 3000 temporary foreign workers are on the peninsula.

Other safety steps have been taken in Pelham. In the last month, signs have gone up around town in Spanish, designed to provide warnings and advisories for farm workers — most of whom are from Central and South America.

However, that’s by no means a failsafe — because of another class issue.

“There’s also literacy challenges, even in their own language,” Garner said. “Moises and one of our nurses have developed a video in English and Spanish with some visual cuing, so that even if somebody’s not able to understand, we have that video so they can understand what they need to do if they feel ill.”

One of the people partly responsible for the signs in Pelham, Maria Del Carmen Suescun Pozas, also worries about the temporary residents’ mental wellbeing.

“Being away [from home] in these circumstances puts a lot of pressure on them,” sais Suescun Pozas, a Brock professor who has also taught Spanish classes at the Pelham Library.

Suescun Pozas spoke with a temporary worker at a local farm, and translated his account for the Voice:

“Overall, we [have] been working less hours. Our day starts at around 8 AM, and we work until 5 PM. We have not been working on Saturdays. We have been given instructions to wash hands with soap. We were given fabric masks we can wash and instructed not to go out on our own. We were also instructed to observe social distancing. We have been [doing our] shopping every two weeks. There are more buses taking us out for shopping. We are split into groups — groups go to different stores. Some of us shop by ourselves. Others go in groups of two or three. Some of us wear our masks and gloves when we go shopping. Keeping the six-feet distance is not always possible at the farm. Because there are fewer working [because of COVID-19], we have more room in our living quarters. Some of us now have a room to ourselves. The person who comes every week to sell us tortillas and other Mexican food we don’t find in the stores still comes. We are also taken to the bank and a person comes to the farm to help us wiring money to our families. Some of the [workers] are frustrated because of the reduced working hours as we are paid per hour. Others are thankful for being able to work during this time. Some others do not understand why the extreme measures and might take recommendations lightly. We are trying not to go ask to be taken to the doctor because of the situation. There is not much for us to do after we finish our working day. Some of us like to go out on our bikes for a ride or to do shopping, but now it is not possible. Going out on our bikes is something we enjoy doing. Some of us have met people in the area. In the past we would visit with them. I would like to talk on the phone with them more, but I worry that I might be bothering them so I don’t phone. I just chat briefly on WhatsApp. Considering the circumstances, we are doing well. I personally think that the owner of the farm is concerned for our wellbeing, to stay healthy is important for us and is also important for the farm.”

Suescun Pozas said that the worker’s reference to some taking the guidelines lightly, and “trying not to ask to be taken to the doctor,” could be an example of some workers having little understanding of how to approach other health matters.

“All farmers and workers across Niagara can contact Quest for assistance,” she said.

Garner and Vasquez continue to recommend that farms facilitate, and workers undergo, virtual medical screenings.

“It’s very important to emphasize that,” Vasquez said.

Quest Community Health Centre can be reached at 905-688-2558.