Column: Farm operations during pandemic complex, but migrant worker safety is the key

Article Sidebar

Article content

It’s difficult to plant peppers when you’re two metres apart. Same goes with packing fruit or picking tomatoes.

Or, frankly, living in a bunkhouse with a bunch of other guys.

In a couple days, two more workers at Delhaven Orchards will be out of enforced 14-day quarantine required after arriving in Canada. The bunkhouse that is built for 20  —  it has six bedrooms — has only 12 people in it to ensure proper social distancing.

“To try to make one rule for all of agriculture is very hard,” said longtime Cedar Springs farmer Hector Delanghe, whose family-run farm in Chatham-Kent has hired offshore migrant workers for years.

Hector Delanghe, owner of Delhaven Orchards in Blenheim. File photo

Like long-term care homes or Alberta’s meat packing plant, social distancing on the farm is turning out to be tricky when there’s a highly contagious virus lurking around the world.

This week Greenhill Produce, a greenhouse operation in Kent Bridge, became what many in the farm community feared: a COVID-19 outbreak zone with 48 workers, including 46 migrant workers, testing positive and another 105 in quarantine. There are 250 workers in total.


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health pointed out the infection was likely from a local worker, showing how the living conditions for workers and farm work itself are fertile ground for the relentless spread of the virus.

From our urban cocoon, where masks and gloves are standard for a trip out and anxiety runs deep just for touching the buttons in an elevator, it’s difficult to understand how complex it is on a farm during a pandemic.

It’s necessary that 20,000 offshore workers flock to the Ontario farm belt every year to ensure crops are planted, tended to and harvested. There’s too much work and not enough people locally to get the job done.

“This is the hard thing that people in big cities don’t understand,” Delanghe said. “They don’t understand that if you don’t plant a seed in the spring, you’re not going to harvest anything in the fall.”

There’s been a lot of safety creativity. For example, plexiglass dividers are available to be put between the seats on pepper planters or on the packing lines when social distancing won’t work.

What happened at Greenhill, Delanghe thinks, was some bad luck. He said public health officials in Chatham-Kent have worked closely with the farmers.

But Santiago Escobar, national representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers and its Agriculture Workers Alliance, said situations like Greenhill or a recent outbreak at a garden nursery in Kelowna highlight the need for enhanced safety regulations for vulnerable migrant workers. Two workers at a large Kingsville mushroom operation have tested positive, he said.


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content continued

He said the union warned the federal government of the potential risk.

What’s needed, he said, are supports from all levels of government integrate workers into communities. And like workers in health care, grocery stores and meat packing, farm workers should be considered essential workers and entitled to the $2-an-hour raise during the pandemic.

Escobar said some workers are “very scared” because they haven’t felt protected from the virus at their workplace and or given proper protective equipment. In the past 20 days, the union has helped 12 workers apply for open work permits in Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent so they can leave abusive jobs and work elsewhere.

In Ontario, he wants workers to be able to organize and calls for more inspections to enforce guidelines, even if it affects productivity — “because at the end of the day we are talking about human lives.”

“And if we make sure the workers have a safe work environment, they will be able to harvest and produce our food and make sure Canada has food security,” he said.

That could open discussions about how integral migrant workers are to the food supply, and “prioritize pathways to permanent residence,” Escobar said.

At Delhaven, Delanghe said their workers have been “so positive” and maintained their distances even through quarantine in the reconfigured bunk house.

“I would have no problem standing in front of anybody and saying, ‘Hey, we did the best we knew how,’ ” he said.