WINDSOR, ONT. -- The activist group, Justice for Migrant Workers, is calling on the medical officer of health in Windsor-Essex to enact tougher measures to protect migrant farmworkers from COVID-19.

In an open letter released Thursday afternoon, the group requests “urgent action” from Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the top public health official in the region, to address “serious health and safety concerns” associated with temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector.

“We are very concerned the number of cases will spread and preventable deaths will occur if there is no immediate action taken,” reads the letter.

In an interview with CTV News, Justice for Migrant Workers organizer Chris Ramsaroop says migrant workers have been forgotten in the COVID-19 crisis.

“In this conversation about essential workers, we have forgotten the important, significant role that farmworkers have played in our society to feed our communities and part of our work is to put forward and to pressure that they get the recognition that they deserve,” says Ramsaroop.

In his daily briefing on Friday, Dr. Ahmed noted 15 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex are tied to the agriculture sector – accounting for roughly 100 cases in the region.

Ahmed notes no fines have been issued to local greenhouses or farms even as the number of cases of the virus within the farming sector has increased. However, Ahmed stressed fines would be laid if health unit inspectors felt it necessary.

According to Ahmed, it is up to both the health unit and municipalities to inspect and ensure the accommodations for migrant workers meet public health guidelines and regulatory standards. Otherwise, the health unit carries out its contact management for the agriculture sector in the same way it handles general community cases.

“We connect with the case, we ensure that they are self-isolating, all their contacts – they’re also self-isolating,” says Ahmed. “Then we are following up with them to ensure if any of them need more testing.”

The letter to Ahmed also notes current orders directed at the local agriculture industry are welcomed but “do not go far enough” in the opinion of Justice for Migrant Workers.

The group has also released a 12 second video allegedly showing sleeping conditions provided to migrant workers at an agriculture business in the Leamington area, which include beds made from pallets.

“We implore you to issue additional orders to the agricultural industry that holds employers, recruiters and contractors accountable for the spread of the pandemic,” reads the letter.

Justice for Migrant Workers is requesting Ahmed enforce new housing requirements among a list of other requests:

  • Bunkhouses should be limited to one or two inhabitants. Workers should be provided with individual rooms in either hotels or motels for the duration of this season.
  • Immediately address the conditions laid out in the video.
  • Develop anti-reprisal measures to protect workers who come forward to complain about living and working conditions.
  • Where an outbreak has occurred, immediately suspend the agricultural workplace from operating until the workplace is fully sanitized and the workers are provided with full Personal Protective Equipment while at work. Workers should be paid for the time that decontamination and cleaning are taking place.
  • Require all employers to provide adequate PPE to all workers.
  • Make it mandatory for employers to maintain a minimum two metres distance between workers, and between workers and customers through a variety of measures, including in bunkhouses and in transportation.
  • Require employers to ensure that handwashing facilities are available and accessible, and that all frequently touched surfaces are cleaned and disinfected, at least once per day.
  • Unannounced inspections to both workplaces and accommodations.
  • Require employers to designate quarantine housing for workers who show symptoms of COVID-19. Quarantine housing shall include separate sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and cooking areas.
  • Require employers to notify workers of possible exposure if a worker is confirmed to have COVID infection. Proceed to shut down the farm to carry out deep cleaning after confirmed cases.
  • End employer wage deductions for all personal protective equipment and develop regulations that ensure employers provide bathrooms, washing facilities and potable water for farm workers in the region.
  • Collect race-based data.

Growers’ response

According to Joseph Sbrocchi, the general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) group, the industry has responded the best it can to the pandemic while continuing to help put food on the table.

Sbrocchi tells CTV News in an interview, growers have worked to comply with public health and other regulatory requirements.

“Who’s the expert? The health unit or an activist group?” questions Sbrocchi. “I’m very proud of our membership, our stakeholders have tackled this. This is a severe challenge.”

He says the video published by Justice for Migrant Workers of the Leamington-area facility was a quarantine zone that was inspected and approved by several officials.

According to Sbrocchi, the area currently has no workers staying there.

“There are multiple levels of oversight here,” he says. “That particular video was a quarantine area, it wasn’t your typical bunkhouse.”

Sbrocchi adds, many bunkhouses across the province are not what people think and provide a comfortable level of accommodations for guest workers.

“A lot of these bunkhouses are very, very modern, very clean,” he says. “I wish when I was in college, I lived in a dorm that nice.”

Ahmed estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 migrant workers reside in Windsor-Essex.

According to Sbrocchi, temporary foreign workers can make up as much as 50 per cent of the staff on a farm.

The OGVG represents 220 members from Windsor to Ottawa.