NORFOLK COUNTY, Ont. — Premier Doug Ford pledged Monday to ramp up testing for thousands of migrant workers across Ontario after a number of new farm outbreaks were reported in recent days.

Ford attributed a spike in Ontario’s positive COVID-19 cases to the farms, saying more than 80 migrant workers have tested positive for the virus.

The premier said he has seen first-hand the communal bunkhouses where workers live, which advocates say can contribute to the spread of the virus.

“I will definitely be addressing this with public health to make sure that we get all the migrant workers tested to keep them safe, to keep the supply chain and the food safe,” he said. “We’re on this.”

Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses. Many of the workers come from Mexico, the Caribbean and Guatemala and when they arrived this year they were required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Outbreaks that have affected dozens of migrant workers have been reported in Chatham-Kent, Windsor-Essex, Niagara Region and Elgin County.

On Sunday night, the mayor of Norfolk County said 120 workers at a local farm have tested positive for COVID-19, with seven of them having been admitted to hospital.

“We have always understood that this was a risk that our community could face and our health unit has been preparing for this possibility,” Kristal Chopp said in a statement. “Other communities in Ontario and across the country have also faced similar situations with on-farm outbreaks.”

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit said over the weekend that 85 migrant workers were affected and the Mexican government liaison had been notified.

The health unit said it is working with the farm, owned by Scotlynn Group, and its clinical staff are developing a plan to evaluate and monitor symptomatic workers.

The company said in a statement that it has executed an isolation plan to stop the spread of the virus. It also said that with a large number of workers not available, it is looking for additional help with an asparagus harvest.

Last month, advocates for migrant workers said the province should ramp up inspections of the farms and the bunkhouses workers live in.

Ford said the province may have to consider making changes to the communal nature of the bunkhouses in the future, but it would be hard to take that action during the pandemic.

“It’s something we can put on the table,” he said. “Can we do it in within a month or so? I just don’t think that’s reality. But what we can do, we can go in and test frequently. I think it’s critical that we do.”

Chris Ramsaroop with the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers wrote Ford last month and asked him to increase Ministry of Labour inspections of the farms, including of migrant workers’ cramped living quarters, and bolster cleaning practices.

He’s not surprised there have been more outbreaks in those settings and urged Ford not to wait to take further action to protect the workers.

“This …should have happened months ago, these proactive inspections and orders should have been implemented on these agricultural operations,” he said. 

Ramsaroop said COVID-19 testing should be expanded to everyone in the province, not just migrant workers.

“We are concerned that migrant farm workers will be stigmatized by any specific testing,” he said. “It is our understanding that most cases of COVID-19 are a result of community contact.”

NDP labour critic Wayne Gates said Ford’s promise of testing for migrant workers should be applied across the board to all front-line workers.

The province should also offer financial support to ensure companies provide migrant workers with proper work and living conditions as well as personal protective equipment.

“You know, at the end of the day, we have to protect our food supply, but we have to make sure that workers are safe while we do that,” Gates said. “Whether you’re somebody from Mexico, Jamaica, or Ontario, every life is valued.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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