The safety of our offshore workers is paramount

By MPP Toby Barrett 

Ontario welcomes more than 20,000 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) each year. About 90 per cent arrive between the months of January and July, leaving behind families in Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago. 

Their work is hard as I can attest.  However, the work is essential as TFWs pitch in to plant, tend, harvest, pack and process our crops.  All three levels of government realize many farmers consider offshore workers to be part of their family, and their health, safety and well-being are of utmost importance in the face of COVID-19.  

The Ontario government has acted on stakeholder advice toward purchasing personal protective equipment, enhancing cleaning and disinfection and redesigning workstations. 

As the pandemic evolved, Ontario put a structure in place to support outreach, collaboration and coordination. The creation of the COVID Agri-Food Secretariat has created a one-window response to COVID-19 challenges. 

The Ministry of Health, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, assisted in the creation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Prevention, Control and Outbreak Support Strategy for COVID-19 in Ontario’s Farm Workers. To prevent and contain COVID-19 outbreaks on farms, the strategy identifies 35 recommended actions by government, agricultural industry organizations, farmers and farm workers.

Locally, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit implemented some of the most stringent TFW restrictions in North America. For example, a vehicle can only transport three workers at a time from the airport to the farm. A farm I recently visited had 600 temporary foreign workers. You can imagine the horrendous logistics of transporting that many from Toronto to Haldimand-Norfolk. These restrictions have been very challenging for farmers, and there are now indications the local health unit may make some accommodations. 

Another onerous Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit requirement permits only three workers in a bunkhouse during quarantine. Many of these bunkhouses can hold up to 40 workers or more. I have lived in bunkhouses and I have done this work, including as a migrant worker. This is a challenge, which went before the Health Services Appeal and Review Board. Decisions of the Board can be appealed to Divisional Court. 

On April 6, this year, the government announced that, with a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines, temporary foreign workers were designated a priority population under the second phase of the vaccination plan. On April 10, we began to offer vaccines to temporary foreign agricultural workers arriving at Pearson Airport. Vaccines are also available locally through our Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit. 

Last year, OMAFRA launched a $36.6-million program supporting the food supply chain. We renewed our commitment with a $10-million one-year extension so that the agri-food sector can continue to address worker and health and safety issues. 

When the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association told us about their need for culturally appropriate resources, we provided $400,000 in assistance. We also provided the Ontario Food Terminal with up to $546,000, in part, to ensure that there were enhanced safety measures in place to keep it open. 

To conclude, we recognize and pay respect to the workers in our sector who lost their lives to COVID-19. This is saddening and weighs heavily on everyone. To avoid such tragedies we must all continue to work hard.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk