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

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.


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