Ontario safeguards jobs and health of migrant workers as testing scales up in Windsor-Essex
Today, Ontario announced that the region of Windsor-Essex, with the exception of Leamington and Kingsville, will move into stage 2 of the province’s COVID-19 reopening plan tomorrow, effective at 12:01 am on June 25
“The outbreaks at our farms is a new challenge, and it requires a targeted response,” says Ontario premier Doug Ford. “Today, we are launching a three-point plan to help the rest of Windsor Essex move into stage 2.”
As a first step, Ontario Health has worked with local hospitals to send mobile testing units to farms. The second step ensures that migrant workers will remain employed even if tested positive for COVID.
“No one will lose their job if you have COVID-19. No one will be sent home if you have COVID-19,” says Ford. “And if you test positive for COVID-19, and you need to self-isolate for 14 days, you will be eligible for WSIB benefits and in some cases, if you worked here last year, and you have a social insurance number, workers may be eligible for federal CERB benefits.”
Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) says they and their partners have been making progress with enhanced testing. “As of mid-day today, we estimate that nearly 23% of greenhouse vegetable acreage in Essex county has undergone testing, with another 39% committed for the upcoming days. This is in addition to testing that has occurred in the other sub-sectors of agriculture in the region,” says OGVG in a release.
New public guidance for asymptomatic workers
The third step is to roll out new public health guidance for asymptomatic workers who test positive for COVID-19, allowing them to continue working safely on the farm while isolated.
As Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health explains, they found ways to separate clusters of asymptomatic workers who tested positive, so they could continue on the job away from other workers. “We would monitor them, we could retest them within 48 hours. If any develops signs or symptoms we would have to deal with them as possible cases. If they can turn negative, they could resume their duties and go back and work with the workforce.”
As to why they could test negative the second time around, Williams says they’ve found that some individuals were already starting to resolve at the time of testing. The sensitivity of the test may pick up remnants of the dead virus in nasal passages, even while the individual is no longer infectious.
These are measures that will protect the health and safety of Ontario’s important agricultural workforce, says Keith Currie, President of the OFA.
“Protecting the health and safety of Ontario’s essential migrant work force is our Number One priority,” he says in a release. “We stand firmly behind the farm families who have co-operated and permitted their workers to be tested, and support the government’s efforts to complete a comprehensive testing program that will help get the outbreak under control on Ontario farms and protect the safety and security of our agri-food workers.” The OFA says they are confident the government’s action plan will result in a positive outcome that will enable the last two communities in the province — Leamington and Kingsville — to move to Stage Two of the province’s plan for re-opening and reduce the risk for Ontario farm workers.
Inspecting living conditions
As Monte McNaughton, Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development explains, his ministry has teamed up with federal inspectors and local public health officials to conduct the first joint inspections on farms in the Windsor-Essex region. “Inspectors will look at workplaces and living quarters, which is key, because provincial inspectors do not have jurisdiction over the bunkhouses,” explains McNaughton.
Approximately 300 inspections have been conducted and 79 orders have been issued to improve conditions. For employers who do not adhere to regulations, the maximum fine is one and a half million dollars with potential time in prison.
“We are here to support the essential workers who come here every year to help put food on our tables,” says Ford.