WATERLOO REGION — When Janet McLaughlin heard about Bonifacio Eugenio Romero dying of COVID-19, she felt sick to her stomach.
“He died 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital. He was dying alone in a hotel room without any help or anyone checking on him. No one should die like that in Canada,” says McLaughlin, an associate professor of health studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Romero, 31, died of COVID-19 on May 30, and Rogelio Muñoz Santo died on June 4. Both were migrant agricultural workers from Mexico, and previously healthy.
When migrant agricultural workers arrived in Canada they spent two weeks in quarantine, and according to McLaughlin this quarantine was often done with multiple migrant workers together. “The quarantine period was more about protecting the Canadian public,” she says. “We knew in a pandemic this was a recipe for disaster” says McLaughlin.
McLaughlin and another professor at WLU, Jenna Hennebry, co-ordinate the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group formed in April by academics and health professionals who have been studying and working with migrant agricultural workers for 20 years. They aim to address issues facing migrant workers by talking directly to government and public health agencies on all levels.
The main recommendation the group has is that workers need more space to live in.
“We’ve been saying for decades they’ve been living in too tight spaces,” says McLaughlin. “It’s not like summer camp where you’re there for a week. This is where these workers are living.”
“Some live here for most of their adult lives,” she says.
“That we don’t know anything about [Bonifacio and Rogelio] is the point,” says Hennebry. “We think of them as workers rather than people with families and interests who have sacrificed a lot to be here. That’s one of the problems with the system: they’re seen as interchangeable.”
The working group has created a 30-page document detailing the issues migrant agricultural workers face and recommendations to meet them, which they have delivered to the federal government.
Measures the working group recommend include better access to protective personal equipment, measures to make sure workers can speak up about their concerns and health issues without fear of losing their jobs or being forced to leave the country, and access to health care and translation services.
The group has also launched website, migrantworker.ca, so the public can access this information. It includes a frequently asked questions page accessible in English and Spanish for migrant workers in Canada under COVID-19 conditions.
Mark Reusser, vice president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says every farmer he knows who hires migrant agriculture workers has complied with every rule from their public health officials.
In March the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association provided documents to its members outlining best practices and guidelines for the health and safety of workers, employers and the Canadian public.
“They’ve followed all the rules municipalities have created. I know farmers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to comply,” Reusser said.
“The level of anxiety among employers is extremely high. They dread a worker not coming into work.”
“It’s unfortunate that we try to point fingers. Farmers want healthy employees,” he said.
Hennebry says Canada’s migrant worker system structures employers as mediators for too many aspects of migrant workers’ lives like their health, housing and access to food.
It’s a role many employers do not feel comfortable with, she says.
“Workers’ autonomy, individuality and human rights are sidelined because the employer has to mediate all that. And in the case of COVID, employers are suddenly having to do infections disease control, and that’s not their expertise.”
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change released a report this week detailing the warnings that migrant workers have been making about working conditions during and before the pandemic.
The workers’ main concern is that they will continue to feel vulnerable until they have permanent resident status. They also detailed problems with pay they were supposed to receive while in quarantine, inadequate access to food, problems with ability to social distance, and increased workloads.
The alliance, a coalition of self-organized groups of migrant workers in Canada, says their report is based on discussions with 180 migrant workers relaying issues on behalf of 1,162 workers between March and May 2020.
“People aren’t generally aware of the tremendous sacrifices that [migrant agricultural workers] make. Most don’t think about it when they go to the grocery store,” said McLaughlin.
“This group is very isolated, and very scared.”
- Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative, Waterloo Region Record