COVID-19 Hitting Canadian Farms: “There had to be one dead for the authorities to react”

COVID-19 Hitting Canadian Farms: “There had to be one dead for the authorities to react”

COVID-19 Hitting Canadian Farms: “There had to be one dead for the authorities to react”

Every year more than 50,000 foreign farmworkers, mainly Mexicans, come to Canada. Until now, three of them have died for COVID-19 and hundreds are sick. Photo: Isabel Inclan


COVID-19 Hitting Canadian Farms: “There had to be one dead for the authorities to react”

After three farmworkers die in Ontario and hundreds are infected of COVID-19, authorities are finally reacting. Migrant workers’ advocates, health specialists and academics are calling on the federal government to protect them and to clear the path for them to become permanent residents.

Isabel Inclan July 6, 202

After three farmworkers die in Ontario and hundreds are infected of COVID-19, authorities are finally reacting. Migrant workers’ advocates, health specialists and academics are calling on the federal government to protect them and to clear the path for them to become permanent residents.

The spread of COVID-19 in several farms across the country and the death of three Mexican farmworkers in Southwestern Ontario has exposed the overcrowding in which they live on some farms, the lack of official inspection to guarantee distance and protection during the pandemic, and even suspicions of labour exploitation.

Many workers in places surrounded by the risk to get coronavirus are reluctant to be tested for COVID-19. Why? Their temporary immigration status makes them feel afraid to be returned to Mexico if they are positive, as reported by migrant workers´ advocates.

Because of the lack of local labour force to work at farms, every year more than 50,000 foreign farmworkers, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, come to Canada under bilateral programs signed decades ago. For periods between three and eight months, they work at farms and earn an average of $14.18 an hour.

The majority (27,000) come from Mexico under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). In 2018, Mexico sent 25,331 farmworkers; in 2019, 27,000, according to Mexican authorities.

Gabriel Morales, coordinator of the SAWP at the Mexican Embassy, said that this year 6,000 Mexicans arrived before March 18 and 11,000 between April and June. Around six or seven thousand are pending to arrive for the rest of the year.

He detailed that until June 24, there was a cumulative of 327 Mexican farmworkers infected with CO

Between May 30 and June 20, three Mexican farmworkers died: Bonifacio E. Romero (31), Rogelio Santos Muñoz (24), and Juan López Chaparro (55). All of them were working in farms of Southwestern O

Fidel Guzman Martinez (47) is part of the 65 Mexicans working in a grape farm in Niagara on the Lake.  “Because of the COVID-19, the farmer provides us with sanitizer, gloves and masks. Every day our temperature is checked and we have to fill a questionnaire about our health condition,” said Guzman, who has worked for the SAWP for 20 years. “I am in charge of cleaning the van every time I transport the workers to the store or the field.”

Selene Marfil Basto (45) was on a Simcoe farm during the pandemic´s peak without a job and payment for two months. The SAWP transferred her to a Hamilton farm where she is in quarantine as a precaution measure. She is sharing the house with 11 female farmworkers. “We are keeping our sanitary measures. I don´t know sick co-workers in this region, but it was very sad to know about the three dead Mexicans. They died without their families around.”

Guzman mourned the death of the three Mexicans but admitted that among the farmworkers “there is a fear of being tested because they think that they will be returned to Mexico.”

Leah F. Vosko, professor at York University and member of Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group (MWHEWG), said that any fears migrant farmworkers have about testing “cannot be separated from deeply-rooted power imbalances in the employment relationship stemming, in part, from workers’ precarious residency status and employer-specific work permits, conditions that have historically allowed employers to repatriate sick or injured workers.”

The MWHEWG was created on June 14 by health professionals and academics from across Canada to honour the death of Bonifacio E. Romero and to bring attention to the “unsafe working conditions” at Canadian farms. In their report, sent to the Employment and Social Development Canada, they recommend “in-person and unannounced inspections on farms, without supervisor/employer involvement.”

Mexican diplomats assured that workers resulting positive for COVID-19 will not be repatriated or lose their jobs. They clarified that the request for foreign workers “should exclude the so-called hot spots and high risks areas for the contagion of COVID-19 until the local health authority determines that conditions are met for a safe and secure work environment.”

From the three unfortunate workers´ deaths, one case took special attention. The 24-year-old Rogelio Santos Muñoz did not have immigration status, was not part of any agricultural program and, as far as it is known, he was recruited and taken to work on a farm in Leamington.

“Rogelio did not go to the farm alone. Someone took him there. Recruiters are not regulated in Ontario and when they employ precarious immigrants, they dominate the labour situation,” said Loly Rico, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre (Toronto) and anti-human trafficking specialist.

Rico pointed out the lack of awareness in foreign workers’ population about labour exploitation in Canada. They don´t know that they have labour rights even if they don’t have status. “Rogelio’s death could have been prevented,” she added.

She called to a deep review of the SAWP because leaving workers subject to a single employer puts them at a disadvantage. “The program continues to treat farmworkers as commodities. Unfortunately, there had to be one death for the authorities to react,” she added concerning the current review on the farms after the three deaths.

While the bodies of the first two dead Mexicans have been repatriated and the third is in process, migrant workers´ advocates highlighted the conditions in which workers live and work that put them on risk to get sick during the pandemic.

“They are working inches away from each other, are separated by cardboard partitions, living in trailers without sinks and using porta-potties 10 or 20 at a time,” said the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

In the report Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada they said migrant workers are the real food producers accounting for 41.6 per cent of all agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent  in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in 2017.

The Alliance has collected over 6,000 signs to support the petition for the federal government “to give farmworkers the power to protect themselves by giving permanent resident status.”

Ottawa ‘remotely’ inspected Ontario farms while COVID-19 infected hundreds of migrant workers

3 migrant labourers have died in Ontario after contracting novel coronavirus

The Ontario towns of Leamington and Kingsville have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Canada with large outbreaks on farms and in greenhouses. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The federal government has conducted mostly remote inspections of Ontario farms that employ migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of physically entering the properties to make sure the labourers’ living conditions are safe.

Employment and Social Development Canada, the department responsible for the inspections, told CBC News that over the last four months, all the farms it inspected during the initial 14-day mandatory quarantine period complied with the rules as of June 12.

But the department admitted in most cases, inspectors didn’t actually travel to the farms in question.

“For the safety of everyone involved, the majority of inspections are still being conducted remotely,” the department said in a statement. By some accounts, the inspections are done virtually. CBC News has asked for details on how the remote monitoring is conducted, but so far, the department has not provided details.

The inspections have been happening as COVID-19 has infected hundreds of migrant farm labourers in Ontario. By last week, three workers had already died. There have been outbreaks in St. Catharines and in Norfolk County, but the majority have been in the Windsor area — forcing the province to expand testing for the novel coronavirus in the region.

Ottawa, which is responsible for checking the bunkhouses where the workers stay, confirmed some in-person inspections started up again last week in the Windsor-Essex area.

But that was too little, too late, according to Syed Hussan, executive director of an advocacy group called the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

“The fact [the inspections] were cancelled in the beginning was the wrong decision,” Hussan told CBC News.

“Three workers are dead and only now are we seeing some minor changes but none of them to the scale which we need them.”

‘It’s scary’

Some labourers from farms in Leamington, Ont., in the Windsor area, say they are nervous the virus is spreading among migrant workers.

“It’s scary to become infected so we’re always nervous,” said Israel, a Guatemalan labourer who works on a tomato farm. He would only tell CBC News his first name.

However, he said his employer has ensured workers are physically distancing and following safety protocols.

“We feel safe on the farm,” he said. “There’s few people in the houses. We wash our hands before and after work.”

Unions also raised concerns when a CBC News investigation found the province was doing inspections of long-term care homes by phone before determining no problems existed. So far, about 70 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths have been residents in long-term care, and many say the virus has shed light on a system that  has long failed them.

Meanwhile, advocates say the pandemic is doing the same with migrant workers.

“COVID-19 has magnified, but also is exacerbating the current crisis,” said Syed.

Israel, a migrant worker from Guatemala, is pictured in Leamington, Ont. He would give only his first name to CBC News. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The government of Premier Doug Ford is partnering with the federal government to conduct concurrent inspections.

In addition to monitoring living conditions for the workers, Ottawa is responsible for making sure farms comply with immigration regulations and rules governing the workers’ contracts. Meanwhile, the province checks farms are obeying labour laws, telling CBC News it has conducted 241 in-person and 62 remote inspections since March 11.

‘Risking their lives’

Under new rules brought in earlier this year, the federal government mandated employers to pay the workers for their two weeks of quarantine and made sure farms allowed labourers to stay in isolation for the entire 14-day period.

A farm employer could face penalties of up to a $1 million and be banned from hiring foreign workers, in some cases permanently.

The federal government said it launched 1,066 investigations of which 703 have been completed between March 1 and June 24. It did not say how many were found non-compliant.

But Syed said the inspection regime is flawed, pointing to the fact the government did not find any employers non-compliant in the initial quarantine period.

A report the group released in June documented inadequate housing and said some workers were not being paid during the quarantine period.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has been pushing Ottawa to grant migrant workers permanent residency so they are able to voice concerns without fear of reprisal.

“People are coming halfway around the world, risking their lives, their livelihoods,” said Syed.

How Canada failed migrant farm workers

Essential but expendable: How Canada failed migrant farm workers
Lax oversight, poor communication and cramped, dirty conditions have left migrant farm workers across Canada vulnerable to COVID-19.


When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the annual flow of farm labour into Canada hung in the balance.

Farmers feared that border closings and grounded planes would prevent agricultural workers, coming from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, from reaching their fields and greenhouses in time for the seeding season. Knowing this, Ottawa allowed entry of temporary foreign workers critical to the food system.

Conditions – including a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival – were put in place to protect Canadians. But advocates and health officials say not enough was done to protect the workers themselves.

In interviews, farm workers detailed the myriad reasons that COVID-19 has infiltrated farms with such success: a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), an information vacuum and pressure to work, despite symptoms. In one instance, a feverish worker developed chest pains and a nosebleed that dripped on the vegetables he tended; he said his supervisors refused to take him home until the shift was over. Photos, videos and interviews portrayed overrun bunkhouses with broken toilets and stoves, cockroach and bed-bug infestations, and holes in the ceiling.

Rules were rolled out, but they weren’t adequately enforced and failed to consider what life on a farm is actually like for a migrant worker. Ottawa requires that farms, which generally provide housing under the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, ensure that accommodations allow physical distancing during the initial quarantine period.

But what happened after those 14 days was a massive blind spot. After isolating, workers often move into the bunkhouses, where they share bathrooms and kitchens and climb atop one another to get into bed. As former migrant worker Gabriel Allahdua put it, conditions in farm accommodations are a “recipe for COVID-19 to spread like wildfire.”


Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Ontario migrant farm workers

As of June 15



In Ontario alone, more than 600 foreign farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail count; health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the workers came to Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have also recorded outbreaks among migrant agri-food workers.

The situation is most dire in Southwestern Ontario, home to the continent’s highest concentration of greenhouses. Ontario’s largest outbreak is at Scotlynn Group, where at least 167 of 216 migrant workers have tested positive. Mexico has become so concerned by the outbreaks that Ambassador Juan Jose Gomez Camacho told The Globe that his country has “put a pause” on sending more workers – 5,000 more are still due to make the trip – until Canadian officials ramp up monitoring of health and safety rules, and ensure workers are paid while in isolation.

Mexico hits pause on sending temporary foreign workers to Canada after COVID-19 deaths

Two of Mr. Gomez Camacho’s countrymen have already died. Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, left their loved ones in Mexico to earn a better living. Their families are now planning the young men’s funerals. Mr. Eugenio Romero and Mr. Munoz Santos died – on May 30 and June 5, respectively – after testing positive for COVID-19. Their final days were spent mostly in hotel rooms, mostly alone.

“For a 24-year-old to die of this is beyond tragic,” said David Musyj, president and chief executive of Windsor Regional Hospital, where Mr. Munoz Santos died. “It should not happen. Just because he was from Mexico, I don’t give a damn. He was my son’s age. He was in Canada. And we should be taking care of him.” Mr. Munoz Santos is one of the youngest people in Canada to die from COVID-19-related causes. Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner is investigating both deaths and will decide whether to launch the province’s first inquest into a migrant worker fatality.

Rogelio Munoz Santos, left, a farm worker from Mexico, died on June 5 after testing positive for COVID-19. He was just 24 years old. Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, right, came to Canada this spring as a farm worker, to support family back home in Puebla, Mexico. He died on May 30 after testing positive for COVID-19, at the age of 31. His final days were spent alone in a hotel room in Kingsville, Ont.

The federal government has the power to conduct pro-active inspections of farm accommodations, but during a six-week period at the height of the pandemic, these audits stopped. They are now being done virtually. The provinces are responsible for occupational health and safety, but in Ontario at least, the Ministry of Labour does not inspect employer-provided accommodations. Local public-health units in the province typically inspect farm bunkhouses once or twice a year, but this is done before workers arrive; an empty space looks markedly different from one with dozens of occupants.

In Canada, advocates and community health care workers for months warned federal and provincial politicians, as well as local public-health officials, that migrant workers were at a heightened risk. In letters, e-mails and conference calls, they asked for a number of measures, including increased funding for public-health units to ensure adequate housing inspections and limits on the number of people using each bathroom in bunkhouses. While some action was taken, many people say help came too little, too late. And advocates worry that unless enforcement and public-health outreach kick into high gear, there are lives and livelihoods at stake, along with the potential for disruption to the food system.

To understand what went so wrong, The Globe interviewed seven migrant workers across four farm operations, at times through a translator, as well as employers, advocates, academics, hospital executives, former migrant workers, doctors, lawyers and industry associations. The Globe reviewed four immigration files detailing allegations of employers who did little or nothing to protect workers. Migrant workers’ identities are being concealed because of privacy concerns and fears of reprisals.

The investigation revealed that problems in an already broken system have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The experiences of workers varied, with some describing decent housing and respectful bosses who have worked hard to keep them healthy. Others spoke of racism and recounted threats of termination or deportation if they didn’t meet stringent productivity quotas.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), said there is a massive disconnect at play. “Migrant workers,” he said, “have been treated as expendable and exploitable – and essential, all at the same time.

In March, a van carrying eight people left Toronto for Leamington, Ont., the tomato capital of Canada. One passenger told The Globe that the ride was arranged by a recruiter; the recruiter, who had met a friend of his on Facebook, promised them decent housing and a fair wage for farm work in the area. Instead, the passenger said, the group arrived in town to an unfinished basement that smelled of septic waste.

He said he refused the apartment and the recruiter arranged a room at the Sun Parlour Motel. About a week later, Mr. Munoz Santos joined him in Room 17; for the next several weeks, the room would house four men who shared two beds and one bathroom. He described Mr. Munoz Santos as quiet and shy – a “sometimes funny” guy who kept in touch with his family. The two men had something in common: They entered the country as tourists, and did not have permits to work.

The agriculture sector employs approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers each year, with upward of 10,000 of them in Windsor-Essex county, which includes Leamington. Under the TFW program, foreign nationals are allowed to work for a particular employer for a set amount of time. Some stay for several months, others are here year-round. There are also foreigners who work in the country unauthorized; according to some estimates, Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants.

Mr. Munoz Santos’s roommate said the recruiter arranged for him and Mr. Munoz Santos to work at Greenhill Produce, in the Chatham-Kent region. The pepper greenhouse has had at least 98 cases of COVID-19, and is the subject of multiple complaints outlined in a recent MWAC report. He said the recruiter skimmed the men’s wages, charged them inflated rent and paid them in cash.


Greenhill declined The Globe’s request for comment. (The company previously released a statement addressing concerns posted online by an anonymous employee, who alleged Greenhill did not do enough to prevent transmission. The company said it was working closely with public-health authorities, and that it was continuing to pay workers and provide them with adequate supplies.)

In the early days of the pandemic, testing and staffing resources were being directed to hospitals and then long-term care and retirement homes. The number of COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers “didn’t really ramp up to the point where it was ringing alarm bells that were louder than the bells that were ringing in long-term care,” said Ross Moncur, the chief of staff and interim CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare, the Leamington hospital where Mr. Munoz Santos was initially treated. “For a while, the numbers were fairly controlled. And then, they weren’t.”

At the end of March, the Medical Officer of Health for the region of Haldimand-Norfolk, southwest of Toronto, took a precaution that angered employers: Shanker Nesathurai required that during the initial quarantine, a maximum of three people could live in a bunkhouse. To Brett Schuyler, of Simcoe’s Schuyler Farms, the limit was arbitrary and nonsensical. One of the farm’s bunkhouses is built to house four people but another can accommodate 40. The apple and cherry farm challenged the rule before the province’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board. (The Globe spoke with three Schuyler employees, all of whom described good working and living conditions.)

At a recent hearing into the matter, Dr. Nesathurai said it would be extremely hard, if not impossible, for more than three workers to keep a proper distance, even in a large bunkhouse. The board concluded that the occupancy cap doesn’t take into account a bunkhouse’s specifics. The limit was struck; employers must ensure workers are able to keep a safe distance, but there is no longer a quarantine cap. (Outside the isolation period, housing standards vary by municipality.)


Come April, a community health executive in Windsor-Essex County was growing increasingly concerned. Claudia den Boer, who is part of the province’s team overseeing the pandemic response, was aware of a cluster of cases on a farm in Chatham-Kent; it was only a matter of time, she thought, before her region would see the same. She asked the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to create a crisis-management plan while there was still time. Among her questions was who, exactly, would make sure the health of isolated workers was properly monitored?

By this point, there were already confirmed cases among migrant workers in Southwestern Ontario; Woodside Greenhouses, the Kingsville pepper farm where Mr. Eugenio Romero was employed, was among the response team’s top farms of concern. Windsor-Essex’s Medical Officer of Health, Wajid Ahmed, assured Ms. den Boer that the unit had been working with the community for a couple of months already. Ms. den Boer was still worried; she knew that some employers didn’t take good care of their workers. In an interview Monday, Dr. Ahmed said migrant workers are still a priority population for the health unit.

Ms. den Boer wishes she had pressed harder for an outbreak plan. “Hindsight is 20/20,” she said.


In late April, a group of Mexican workers emerged from quarantine and headed into the fields of Scotlynn Group, a major Norfolk county operation that grows corn, watermelons, pumpkins and asparagus. When they were joined by employees who lived off-site, the workers started to get sick.

The Globe spoke with three Scotlynn workers, all of whom tested positive and were isolating in hotel rooms at the time of the interviews. They described overcrowded living conditions, including small bedrooms with multiple sets of bunk beds; ill workers living with healthy ones; leaky toilets, and showers that only ran hot water; an absence of information on how to access health care; and no PPE to guard against the virus.

“We notified supervisors when people were falling ill and they didn’t do anything,” one worker said. “They treated us like animals.” A second worker said employees were not provided with PPE and believes the outbreak could have been prevented had supervisors been more responsive. The third worker said his mental health is deteriorating. “I feel trapped in the hotel room.”

Scott Biddle, president and CEO of Scotlynn Group, said in an interview the farm’s accommodations are well above standards. He said the farm, which accepted federal funding to assist with the costs associated with the mandatory quarantine period, equipped workers with masks and gloves. As for accusations that supervisors pressed employees to work with symptoms, Mr. Biddle said that’s not the case. “There would be no advantage to us not to tend to a sick worker,” he said.

There are rules and guidelines for Scotlynn Group and others to follow. According to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) guidelines, an employer must immediately isolate a symptomatic worker, providing a private bedroom and private bathroom. Employers must also alert local public-health officials of suspected or confirmed cases. Provincial guidance, which applies to workplaces and not housing, says “if the risk of COVID-19 cannot be sufficiently reduced by other methods, PPE may be required.” (Last week, Ontario announced $15-million in funding for agri-food employers to purchase PPE and redesign workspaces to facilitate physical distancing.)

Other farms are facing allegations of poor living and working conditions. Between March 1 and May 29, ESDC received 29 COVID-19-related complaints regarding the TFW program in the agriculture and food-processing sector. Over the same period, the department conducted 585 inspections related to the program (all inspections are now done virtually or remotely, the ESDC says). Between March 11 and June 10, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour received 57 COVID-19-related complaints in the agriculture sector; three were made against Ontario Plants Propagation, where at least 20 migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19. During that same period, the Ministry of Labour conducted 177 inspections; 55 were done remotely. The province said it has issued 56 compliance orders in the agriculture sector, including to Woodside. No farms have been issued a stop-work order.

Santiago Escobar, a co-ordinator with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, which operates under the United Food and Commercial Workers union and represents migrant workers, said the alliance has fielded more than 100 calls from concerned workers since March. In the past two months, he has also helped process two dozen applications for open work permits – a type of authorization, launched by the federal government last year, that gives temporary foreign workers the freedom to leave abusive employers and find jobs elsewhere.

Most of the applications to the immigration department were filed by people working at Kapital Produce, in Ruthven, Ont. Two of the applications – which were approved by Ottawa and reviewed by The Globe – described a cockroach-infested three-bedroom, two-bathroom bunkhouse for 19 people. Other allegations included: threats and racist comments from a supervisor; deductions from paycheques for expenses not agreed to; and a lack of PPE. Kapital did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of deadline.


By early May, Mr. Munoz Santos and his roommate developed fevers and went to the Erie Shores hospital. The roommate said the clerk at the emergency department hesitated to help them when they said they did not have health insurance. They pleaded, he said, and they were both tested. Mr. Munoz Santos was admitted, while the roommate, whose symptoms were less severe, was released. (The roommate said he tested positive and moved into another room to isolate.)

Dr. Moncur said the hospital provides care to anyone who walks through the door, regardless of their immigration status. “In theory, if you don’t have coverage, you might get billed for private care,” he said. The roommate said the hospital sent him a $600 bill at Greenhill, where he was working. Dr. Moncur said Erie Shores is realistic about a person’s ability to pay such fees.

Mr. Munoz Santos spent most of his final days at the hospital, his body doing its best to fight off the virus, despite underlying health conditions, including anemia. By the time the 24-year-old was transferred to the Windsor hospital for a higher level of care, he was in and out of consciousness. The nursing team knew they should alert his family. They tried to use his phone to figure out who to call, but it had run out of battery and they couldn’t find a charger that fit. Hospital staff ultimately got through to his mother with the help of the Mexican consulate.

Mr. Munoz Santos’s roommate believes his friend’s fear of deportation, inability to speak English and unfamiliarity with the Canadian health care system made him especially vulnerable. Mr. Munoz Santos, he said, was initially apprehensive about getting help and was worried about the cost. He already owed his father for a hospital stay in Mexico; he had come to Canada to pay off his debt. “I feel very bad,” said the roommate, who left Leamington looking for a job. “I wonder if I could have helped him more.”


At a daily temperature check before starting his shift on May 21 at Woodside Greenhouses, Mr. Eugenio Romero registered a fever. The facility’s director of human resources, Steve Laurie, drove the young man to the local hospital to get tested for COVID-19. Few words were exchanged from behind their masks – Mr. Eugenio Romero didn’t speak English – but Mr. Laurie could tell he was worried. Mr. Eugenio Romero moved out of the large bunkhouse he shared with 21 others and into a hotel to self-isolate. Two days later, he was told he had the virus.

Mr. Laurie said he checked on Mr. Eugenio Romero every day. Accompanied by a translator, the men spoke at a distance through a screened door. Public-health officials also monitored Mr. Eugenio Romero’s condition by phone. Workers who came into contact with him were swabbed and isolated. Two tested positive and have since recovered, Mr. Laurie said.

He said the bunkhouse passed public-health inspection and had been approved for 32 people; it has one large bathroom with four toilets, two urinals, four showers and eight sinks. Mr. Laurie said the company provided masks and sanitizer, and circulated COVID-19 communications in three languages, including Spanish, beginning in March. “We’re farmers. We’re not the devil,” he said. “But just like anything else, I’m sure there are some bad apples.”

On Saturday, May 30, Mr. Eugenio Romero had trouble breathing and called for an ambulance. He had already passed before paramedics arrived; he was pronounced dead at the Erie Shores hospital. He was his family’s sole breadwinner; his widow is grieving in Puebla, Mexico. “[The death] was a call to action for all of us,” Dr. Moncur said.

That weekend, Dr. Moncur’s phone lit up with calls, texts and e-mails from health professionals determined to keep this from happening again. By Monday, Erie Shores was sending outreach teams – each with at least one Spanish speaker – to check on infected workers isolating in hotels and bunkhouses.

During their visits, the teams kept hearing that the workers believed there were far more cases than anyone knew. Erie Shores already had an assessment centre attached to the hospital, but workers weren’t going there in any large numbers. Dr. Moncur said there are multiple reasons for this, including language barriers, a lack of transportation and long work hours.

On June 9, the gymnasium at the Nature Fresh Farms Recreation Centre in Leamington was converted into a mass-testing and assessment centre. Stickers on the pavement outside the centre advise people to “respeto a la distancia fisica” and remain two metres apart. Mr. Musyj, the president and CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital, said one woman at the centre asked him last week if her undocumented friends could come for testing, too. “I said, ‘We’re not an immigration service,’” he recounted. “’Please bring them.’”

In the short term, advocates are calling for a significant increase in the enforcement of existing rules, particularly through unannounced, in-person inspections. In the long term, they are calling for a national housing standard for migrant farm workers, greater access to open work permits and pathways to permanent residency.

The federal government said it is considering further steps to keep migrant workers safe. “We recognize there is more to do to protect temporary foreign workers in this country,” the office of Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said in an e-mailed statement. “The reported cases of inappropriate behaviours and unsafe working conditions are completely unacceptable. “

Some of the workers interviewed for this story have been able to leave unsafe situations and find new jobs. Others are sick and hotel-bound, eager to start making money again. “Workers depend on this income; they have lots of costs and families they need to support,” one of the Scotlynn workers said. “It’s not their fault that they got sick. … We’re asking for support to get through the illness.”



Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers

Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers

Migrant worker advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for the federal government to create a new mechanism for foreign workers to access critical benefits like employment insurance (EI).

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, told the House human resources committee on Monday that the government must find a way to ensure that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) can access the benefits they’re already paying into, such as the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) and EI  benefits.

READ MORE: Feds provide $50 million to help temporary foreign workers self-isolate

“What [TFWs] want is access to those benefits when they need them, whether or not they get sick and or there is a shortage of jobs, including if they have to return to their country,” she told MPs as part of their study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant workers and those living in Canada with precarious immigration status.

The meeting comes just days after a third Mexican migrant worker died from COVID-19 in Ontario.

Despite paying into EI programs, migrant farm workers have never been eligible for full EI benefits because they are seasonal. However, they did access to EI’s special parental, maternal and compassionate benefits up until December 2012 when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eliminated the benefit.

In April, the government announced that employers must pay TFWs during their 14-day self isolation period, and pledged $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker for eligible employers. As well, the feds  committed to providing these workers with access to EI benefits and other income supports if they become ill, laid-off, or have to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said many migrant workers were forced to risk their lives and come to Canada or be without income, as CERB and EI were not available to these workers, even though many work and pay taxes in Canada year after year. The result, he said, has been the death of three migrant workers so far, including Mexican migrant worker Juan López Chaparro who died from COVID-19 in Norfolk County in Southern Ontario on Saturday.

His death was preceded by the passing of Mexican farm worker Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, in May. He was the first migrant worker to die from COVID-19. A week later, 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos also died after contracting the virus. Both migrant workers were employed on farms in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex County.

Hussan said the three men are just one example of the “series of injustices” occurring across Canada as migrants in the country don’t have access to CERB, healthcare, or jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At his daily press briefing Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said anyone who works in Canada must be able to do so in a safe environment, saying that has not been the case for many migrant workers. He said the workers are an important part of Canada’s food supply chain, and that their protection must be guaranteed.

READ MORE: StatsCan report on rising numbers of TFWs in AG sector suggests labour shortage, experts say

“I think it’s obvious that we need to do a better job of ensuring that rules are followed for temporary foreign workers in Canada,” he said.

Hussan said increased inspections of conditions on farms will not solve the problem, saying that farmers are following the laws, but workers are still being given inadequate housing, and face reprisal and not being brought back the next year if they complain. As well, he noted that some farmers are not providing enough food for workers during their 14 day self-isolation period, while workers can’t gain access to groceries in their own,

Hussan said the solution is to create a single-tier immigration system which offers full immigrations status for everyone who comes to Canada.

“We need a single-step solution,” he said.

This would solve the “technical issues” of programs like CPP being deposited into Canadian bank account, and therefore not being accessible to migrant workers in Mexico, as well as issues like workers not having access to healthcare.

Douglas said her sense that migrant workers don’t mind paying taxes but want access to the benefits when they need it, such as if they’re sick or if there’s a shortage of jobs. But, she agreed with Hussan that workers coming to Canada should be given the option, noting that some workers want to stay, while others want to return to their home country.

Douglas also said the federal government could pull from existing undocumented citizens, migrant workers, refugees claimants, international students to help meet immigration targets already set for 2020 and 2021, noting that they will likely not be met because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: Migrant workers pause applies to just handful of Ontario farms, industry says

A recent report from Statistics Canada found there were 550,000 temporary workers (temporary residents who received a T4 slip during the year) in Canada in 2017, accounting for 15.5 per cent of employees in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting fields. The report also said foreign workers made up 41.6 per cent of agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent of agricultural workers in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in 2017.

Migrant Workers Advocates Call for Government Action Against Human Trafficking

Migrant Workers Advocates Call for Government Action Against Human Trafficking


Lack of government inspection on recruiters’ operations, closed contracts to a specific employer, and insufficient information for temporary workers create the conditions for labour abuse and human trafficking in Canada.

Migrant workers’ advocates are calling on the federal government to adopt a holistic approach to address human trafficking that encompasses prevention, social protections, accountability, and labour mobility.

Migrant groups said existing government programs and policies fail to protect some migrant workers who are most susceptible to labour trafficking.

“The current pandemic crisis only amplifies their precarity,” said the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), Sisters of St. Joseph (London, Ont.), Migrant Workers Centre (Vancouver, B.C.), FCJ Refugee Centre (Toronto, Ont.), and Mouvement contre le viol et l’inceste (Montreal, Que.) in a media advisory released prior to public education event on June 10.

Some of the conditions that facilitate the abuse of migrant workers includes: lack of government inspection on recruiters’ operations, work contracts specific to one employer, and insufficient information provided to temporary workers.

Precarious work leads to exploitation

A young Filipino woman named only ‘Maria’ spoke at the event and shared the harrowing experience that brought her to Canada.

In 2017, she arrived with an employer-family on the false promise of a two-month vacation in Vancouver. A week later, Maria’s employers informed her that they will be staying permanently in Canada and confiscated her passport.

“I worked as a live-in caregiver for more than 12 hours per day, six days a week,” said Maria.

“They paid me $600 a month. I didn’t know I was a victim of human trafficking. I was afraid to lose my job because I am the only support of my family. I suffered emotional and physical abuse from my employer. I was traumatized until the Migrant Workers Centre found a place for me.”

Natalie Drolet, executive director and staff lawyer at the Migrant Workers Centre, pointed to the need for “consistency” to support migrant workers. In Maria’s case, her application for a  temporary residence permit (TRP) was refused, and the appeal to the Federal Court of Canada took a year and a half until it was finally granted, she explained.

Rico Angustia, 47, is another migrant worker from the Philippines, who came to Canada in 2012.

“I was recruited by a Canadian agency that promised me a job and permanent residence. I paid $4,000 to a lawyer to complete my application. I don’t have a work permit. I have been living and working precariously because of my immigration status.”

Angustia tried to find a job through a temporary employment agency in Toronto that “took advantage of my situation by taking an illegal deduction from my salary for two years. I knew through the news that my employer was charged with human trafficking. I have spent in total $42,000 trying to fix my situation in Canada during the last eight years.”

He has been a client of the FCJ Refugee Centre for one year. He is currently an undocumented worker but has applied for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds with the help of FCJ.

Angustia’s is a clear case of exploitation, deception and coercion, said Luis Alberto Mata, project co-ordinator of the Anti–Human Trafficking Project of FCJ.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, Angustia’s situation became worse. Due to his precarious migration status, he can’t apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB),” said Mata of FCJ Refugee Centre.

To be eligible for CERB, the federal government’s economic relief program to combat the effects of COVID-19, applicants must be residents of Canada and have stopped working due to the pandemic – or are eligible for Employment Insurance or sickness benefits.

The advocacy organizations urged the federal government to set human rights and social justice at the centre of immigration policies and programs that currently make people vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Canada should offer temporary residence permits

In their calls of action, the coalition have demanded the government make the TPR accessible to trafficked persons in a way that reflects how people are coerced and exploited in Canada.

“This grounded understanding of international trafficking in Canada needs to be consistently applied across all provinces,” said Shelley Gilbert, co-chair of the CCR Anti-Trafficking Committee.

They suggest the government collaborate with front-line workers who have an expert understanding of how recruitment, deception, fraud, coercion are means to exploit people in Canada.

Gilbert, who also serves co-coordinator of Social Work Services of Legal Assistance for the City of Windsor, detailed the advocacy priorities that include: recognize and address systemic inequalities that are the causes and consequences of trafficking; protect the rights of trafficked persons and those at risk; implement legislative changes to ensure there is a permanent pathway to protection; and access to justice and services.

The CCR Anti-Trafficking Committee´s ongoing campaign Protecting Trafficked Persons in Canada with the hashtag ‘#BecauseIamHuman’ seeks to create awareness of labour exploitation and to encourage protection and justice for trafficked persons.


Full Immigration Status for All: digital rally on June 14

Call from the FCJ Anti-Human Trafficking Migrant Workers Mobile Program – Migrant Rights Network:

5 migrant farmworkers have been hospitalized with COVID-19. Hundreds of others are sick from Windsor, ON, to Kelowna, BC, to Brooks, AB. Migrant care workers remain trapped by employers who refuse to let them leave even to send remittances to families in need.

Today is the third rent day for many hundreds of thousands of families who haven’t had income since March. Across the country, we are fundraising to distribute cash and food, but it’s just not enough. Federal income support remains out of reach, particularly for undocumented people. Even in a pandemic, healthcare is not available in most provinces for uninsured migrants.

COVID-19 has worsened what has been a grave injustice for decades: the inequalities that migrants face are rooted in an immigration system that keeps us temporary and undocumented. This can not continue. On June 14th, we will launch our campaign for full immigration status for nearly 2 million people in the country without permanent resident status. We insist on landed immigration status for all low-waged migrants that arrive in the future

Join a massive digital and social media gathering of migrants, poor and working class people, and allies. Together, migrants from across Canada will raise our voice for healthcare, decent work, family unity and equal rights for all.

We need you. We need you to join, we need you to mobilize, we need you to organize: RSVP for June 14th!

For the last month, in addition to immediate crisis response, we have been bringing together migrant and undocumented people and allies in almost every province. Thousands of migrants have participated in meetings to talk about the challenges we are facing, and the solutions we need. Today, we launch our plan.  

On June 14th, join 46 migrant-led organizations and supporters as we launch our joint call for full immigration status for all. We are essential. We are exploited. We are excluded. We are enraged. We are engaged. We are mobilizing.

In this moment of crisis, we have seen at every turn that the fundamental injustice is lack of full immigration status. It is the absence of valid Social Insurance Numbers that has shut people out of income support. It is tied work permits that have made it impossible for many to leave unsafe work. It is exorbitant tuition fees tied to study permits that push migrant students into bad jobs and despair. It is the fear of detention and deportation that force migrant and undocumented people away from accessing basic needs. 

Full immigration status for all is an absolute necessity. Join us now, join us on June 14, help us build the broadest possible movement in defence of all. Start by RSVPing here:  

85 migrant workers test positive in latest Ontario farm outbreak

This past week saw outbreaks involving migrant workers at farms across southwestern Ontario

Anti-Human Trafficking Work Challenges during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Finding Housing for Human Trafficking Victims

You are invited to register for this informative webinar Anti-Human Trafficking Work Challenges during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Finding Housing for Human Trafficking Victims.

For registration follow the link:


Please register for Anti-Human Trafficking Work Challenges during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Finding Housing for Human Trafficking Victims on Jun 4, 2020 3:30 PM EDT at:


Anti-Human Trafficking online forum

Celebrating Courage, Renewing Commitment

This forum provided in-depth knowledge and innovative approaches on how to maintain anti-human trafficking efforts and provide services to survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It explored innovative ways of partnership collaboration during the pandemic. Recognize and understand how to navigate the system given the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also it brought awareness on policy gaps & limitations aggravated during the pandemic increasing the vulnerability of victims and survivors of human trafficking.


Shelley Gilbert, Legal assistance Windsor– LAW, WEFight Windsor Human Trafficking Resource

Rhonelle Bruder, advocate member of the TCHTN

Melody Brown, community member of the Native Women’s Resource Centre.

Nadine Edwards, community member of the Native Women’s Resource Centre

Melissa Compton, indigenous advocate against human trafficking

The speakers did excellent presentations.



International Migrant Trafficking Forum

Join the Legal Assistance of Windsor and FCJ Refugee Centre as we present a forum on the ongoing exploitation and trafficking of international migrants in Windsor . The more we arm ourselves with the critical knowledge of exploitation that is rife in our community, the better we can do to work towards a brighter future for all. This day will be complete with panel experts, network resources, and activities. Let’s break the chains of human trafficking together.

To register click here:

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