The spread of COVID-19 in several farms across the country and the death of three Mexican farmworkers in Southwestern Ontario has exposed the overcrowding in which they live on some farms, the lack of official inspection to guarantee distance and protection during the pandemic, and even suspicions of labour exploitation.
Many workers in places surrounded by the risk to get coronavirus are reluctant to be tested for COVID-19. Why? Their temporary immigration status makes them feel afraid to be returned to Mexico if they are positive, as reported by migrant workers´ advocates.
Because of the lack of local labour force to work at farms, every year more than 50,000 foreign farmworkers, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, come to Canada under bilateral programs signed decades ago. For periods between three and eight months, they work at farms and earn an average of $14.18 an hour.
The majority (27,000) come from Mexico under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). In 2018, Mexico sent 25,331 farmworkers; in 2019, 27,000, according to Mexican authorities.
Gabriel Morales, coordinator of the SAWP at the Mexican Embassy, said that this year 6,000 Mexicans arrived before March 18 and 11,000 between April and June. Around six or seven thousand are pending to arrive for the rest of the year.
He detailed that until June 24, there was a cumulative of 327 Mexican farmworkers infected with COVID-19 in 19 farms in Southwestern Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec.
Between May 30 and June 20, three Mexican farmworkers died: Bonifacio E. Romero (31), Rogelio Santos Muñoz (24), and Juan López Chaparro (55). All of them were working in farms of Southwestern Ontario (Windsor-Essex, Leamington, Norfolk).
Fidel Guzman Martinez (47) is part of the 65 Mexicans working in a grape farm in Niagara on the Lake. “Because of the COVID-19, the farmer provides us with sanitizer, gloves and masks. Every day our temperature is checked and we have to fill a questionnaire about our health condition,” said Guzman, who has worked for the SAWP for 20 years. “I am in charge of cleaning the van every time I transport the workers to the store or the field.”
Selene Marfil Basto (45) was on a Simcoe farm during the pandemic´s peak without a job and payment for two months. The SAWP transferred her to a Hamilton farm where she is in quarantine as a precaution measure. She is sharing the house with 11 female farmworkers. “We are keeping our sanitary measures. I don´t know sick co-workers in this region, but it was very sad to know about the three dead Mexicans. They died without their families around.”
Guzman mourned the death of the three Mexicans but admitted that among the farmworkers “there is a fear of being tested because they think that they will be returned to Mexico.”
Leah F. Vosko, professor at York University and member of Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group (MWHEWG), said that any fears migrant farmworkers have about testing “cannot be separated from deeply-rooted power imbalances in the employment relationship stemming, in part, from workers’ precarious residency status and employer-specific work permits, conditions that have historically allowed employers to repatriate sick or injured workers.”
The MWHEWG was created on June 14 by health professionals and academics from across Canada to honour the death of Bonifacio E. Romero and to bring attention to the “unsafe working conditions” at Canadian farms. In their report, sent to the Employment and Social Development Canada, they recommend “in-person and unannounced inspections on farms, without supervisor/employer involvement.”
Mexican diplomats assured that workers resulting positive for COVID-19 will not be repatriated or lose their jobs. They clarified that the request for foreign workers “should exclude the so-called hot spots and high risks areas for the contagion of COVID-19 until the local health authority determines that conditions are met for a safe and secure work environment.”
From the three unfortunate workers´ deaths, one case took special attention. The 24-year-old Rogelio Santos Muñoz did not have immigration status, was not part of any agricultural program and, as far as it is known, he was recruited and taken to work on a farm in Leamington.
“Rogelio did not go to the farm alone. Someone took him there. Recruiters are not regulated in Ontario and when they employ precarious immigrants, they dominate the labour situation,” said Loly Rico, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre (Toronto) and anti-human trafficking specialist.
Rico pointed out the lack of awareness in foreign workers’ population about labour exploitation in Canada. They don´t know that they have labour rights even if they don’t have status. “Rogelio’s death could have been prevented,” she added.
She called to a deep review of the SAWP because leaving workers subject to a single employer puts them at a disadvantage. “The program continues to treat farmworkers as commodities. Unfortunately, there had to be one death for the authorities to react,” she added concerning the current review on the farms after the three deaths.
While the bodies of the first two dead Mexicans have been repatriated and the third is in process, migrant workers´ advocates highlighted the conditions in which workers live and work that put them on risk to get sick during the pandemic.
“They are working inches away from each other, are separated by cardboard partitions, living in trailers without sinks and using porta-potties 10 or 20 at a time,” said the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
In the report Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in Canada they said migrant workers are the real food producers accounting for 41.6 per cent of all agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in 2017.
The Alliance has collected over 6,000 signs to support the petition for the federal government “to give farmworkers the power to protect themselves by giving permanent resident status.”
Marfil Basto showed her hope of being a permanent resident after working for SAWP for 10 years. “I have worked for many years in Canada and I think I have the right to become a Canadian. I work here most of each year. “
Isabel Inclan has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, in both Mexico and Canada. She began working as a foreign correspondent in Canada in 1999, first for El Financiero, a Mexican newspaper, and more recently at Notimex, a Mexican news agency. She has been an NCM contributor since 2018, her main areas of interest being politics, community, immigrant women, and cultural issues. In 2015, Isabel was honoured as one of the “10 most influential Hispanic Canadians.” She is a master´s candidate at Ryerson-York universities.