Ontario farmer calls on government to step up migrant workers’ rights

The prime minister and premier issued a strong warning to farmers last week to keep migrant workers safe after outbreaks on southern Ontario farms, but a farmer in Waterloo region says it’s the government that needs to improve workers’ rights.

Hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in southern Ontario. Last week, CBC News reported the third death of a migrant worker from a farm near Vittoria, Ont., south of Brantford.

“The ministry of labour, they need to tighten up protections, afford them and protect their rights better,” said Jennifer Pfenning, who runs Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Harmburg.

Pfenning, who’s also a regional councillor for Wilmot Township, was encouraged by the government insisting on protections for workers and on-site testing, which was part of the province’s three-point plan released last week.

But she says it’s not enough to ensure the long-term health and safety or workers.

‘Not a luxury’

Regulating rest periods, length of work day as well as days off is crucial to the overall health of migrant workers, which in turn would help to reduce the risk of COVID-19, says Pfenning.

“Those are human right needs. Those are not a luxury,” said Pfenning.

She also wants to see the federal government re-evaluate its criteria for permanent residents, to give migrant workers a better chance of making Canada a permanent home.

Desmond Daily says he found the news of the migrant worker farm outbreaks unsettling, and his family worries for his safety. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Desmond Daily has been working on Pfenning’s farm since 2006. He makes the journey from Jamaica every year for eight months.

He says the recent outbreaks among migrant workers in southern Ontario have been unsettling.

“When I heard this news, I tried to take more precautions,” said Daily. “[COVID-19] has no colour, no race, no nationality. So we have to play by the rules.”

Safety measures

Pfenning’s farm, which employs about 35 migrant workers during peak season, hasn’t had any COVID-19 cases.

“I don’t claim that we’re perfect or that we do everything perfectly by any stretch, but I’ve done everything that I can think of to try to reduce the risk because no one can completely eliminate it,” said Pfenning.

Pfenning looked carefully at the outbreaks at meat processing plants to learn how to keep workers safe — what caused the outbreaks and how the plants responded.

Workers at her farm have N-95 and cloth masks. Dividers have been installed in a vehicle that brings workers to and from the farm, and there are no dorm-style lodging quarters, so all workers have personal living space.

Temperature and wellness checks are conducted daily.

Kevin Martin, president of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo, has introduced similar safety measures. Like Pfenning’s farm, he hasn’t had any cases of COVID-19.

‘Not something we need to be told to do’

Martin appreciates the province’s plan to introduce mobile testing on farms but says hearing the prime minister and premier telling farmers there will be consequences if they don’t protect workers is unnecessary.

“It’s just what we’re going to do, it’s not something we need to be told to do,” said Martin.

There are about 15 farms that employ 190 temporary foreign workers in Waterloo region, according to numbers from the Region of Waterloo.

Migrant workers from Jamaica pick curley parsley at Pfenning’s Organic Farm. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

There are no reported cases among migrant workers on farms in the region, according to Region of Waterloo Public Health and Wellington Dufferin Guelph Public Health.

It’s a reality Daily reminds himself of often. He talks to his family in Jamaica every day to ensure them he’s wearing gloves, a mask and staying distanced.

“They say, ‘Please try to stay safe,’ and I do that,” said Daily.


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