Union pushing for more COVID-19 protection for migrant workers

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada) recently presented to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to advocate for better health and safety protections for migrant workers labouring in the Windsor, Ont., area.

The county and area has been hard hit by COVID-19 at local farms and farm businesses, including hundreds of positive cases and three deaths within the farm worker population.

The union says that workers report hazardous working conditions at farms and greenhouses, as well as cramped living quarters, a lack of physical distancing and personal protective equipment.

UFCW Canada does not represent migrant workers in Canada.

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture says that under the seasonal agriculture worker program, all workers registered have access to the Ontario Health Insurance Program (OHIP). For areas that OHIP doesn’t cover, employers are required to have health coverage for its workers.

Seasonal workers are also protected by the same labour laws that anyone working in Ontario are, Currie says, contrary to claims made by UCFW.

Currie adds that accommodations for migrant workers are built to municipal by-law and building code, inspected by the public health units, and also certified by Service Canada. “They also have a hazard assessment done my the Ministry of Labour. So workers coming through the registered SAWP program are well-covered for programming, accommodation protocols and government oversight as is every Canadian or domestic worker,” he says.

“We have all seen the coverage on undocumented workers which are not housed on farm but are looked after by uncertified and uncontrolled brokers. The farm owners/operators are required to follow certain protocols and anyone who doesn’t, should be reported. The industry’s goal is to provide a safe productive work environment,” Currie says, adding that the migrant worker program has been in use for 60 years, with multiple generations coming back to the same farm year after year.

“If you are treated unfairly and are in poor working conditions, why would you come back?” he asks.

The union is advocating for the closure of all farms and greenhouses where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred, until these facilities have been controlled and proper sanitation has taken place, including in workers’ accommodations. Other requests from UFCW include:

  • providing alternative housing for workers who have tested positive and are recovering;
  • changes to housing conditions and inspection of accommodations on farms;
  • providing health and safety resources and information on COVID-19 in languages that migrant workers understand;
  • ongoing and regular COVID-19 testing even after regular business hours;
  • paid sick leave for migrant workers;
  • ban housing above or adjacent to greenhouses; and,
  • provide access to testing for pesticide exposure and poisoning.

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