A migrant worker advocacy group is slamming a $10-million investment by the province to beef up safety protocols on farms as ineffective at protecting workers’ rights.
Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman announced additional funding Thursday to expand the Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program.
The money will support farmers in purchasing personal protective equipment, enhancing cleaning protocols and redesigning workplaces to accommodate social distancing.
“It is critical that we take every step possible to protect worker health and safety and ensure the province’s food producers can continue operating,” Hardeman said in a statement. “The men and women on our farms and in the agri-food sector are essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic and deserve our support and appreciation.”
But the advocacy group Justice 4 Migrant Workers said the measures don’t go far enough and benefit business owners more than the 20,000 migrant farmworkers Ontario relies on each year.
“It’s simply the status quo,” organizer Chris Ramsaroop said of the funding announcement. “It’s not just simply about throwing money at employers, it’s about providing the resources and investing to make our workplaces healthy and safe.”
Many migrant workers live in bunkhouses, when congregate living places are often regarded as a high-risk setting for virus spread.
In Ontario, 15 farms and 11 food processing facilities have active COVID-19 outbreaks.
Last summer, Southwestern Ontario’s rich farm belt became a flashpoint for COVID-19 spread. Nearly 1,800 migrant workers contracted COVID-19 and three died.
The agri-food protection program was initiated last year with $26.6 million for improving farm safety.
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Thursday’s update expands eligibility to farms that hire three or more employees and to other agri-food businesses, including transporters, hatcheries and primary processing facilities.
Those in the industry applauded the investment.
“Extending funding and access to this program will help address the concerns we’ve heard from farmers regarding cost and availability of personal protective equipment,” Peggy Brekveld, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, said in a statement.
As the third wave of COVID-19 continues to ravage the province — just as the agriculture industry gears up to welcome thousands of offshore workers to its fields and greenhouses — Ramsaroop said he’s “extremely concerned” for worker safety heading into the farming season.
“There are thousands of workers from the beginning of the pandemic to now who have been sick,” he said. “Workers continue to express that they want to work but want to make sure that their health and safety is protected.”
Ramsaroop said implementing provincial paid sick days and extending permanent resident status are both essential to protecting vulnerable migrant workers and improving equal access to basic rights.
More than a year into the pandemic, he said it’s disheartening more hasn’t been done to address the systemic barriers, such as lack of immigration status, that migrant workers face.
“It’s beyond being frustrated,” Ramsaroop said. “The most vulnerable continue to suffer.”
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