Temporary ban on new migrant workers in Southwestern Ontario to stem COVID-19 spread could lead to food shortages, farmers say

Greenhouses on a farm near Leamington, Ontario. Around 275 of the estimated 2,000 migrant agricultural workers currently in the Windsor-Essex region are now in isolation due to COVID-19.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A temporary travel ban for migrant workers in Canada’s greenhouse-growing capital is sparking another wave of warnings of possible food shortages – and underscoring the challenge of balancing workplace safety and food security.

Ontario’s Windsor-Essex County Health Unit announced a decision this week to halt the arrival of migrant workers in the area for the next three weeks after COVID-19 outbreaks among farm workers escalated rapidly in recent days. Vegetable growers in the region say the decision will have a disastrous impact on industry and food supplies across the country.

“The burden of COVID-19 in the migrant farmworker community currently exceeds the community’s resources to manage the appropriate and compassionate response,” Shanker Nesathurai, the county’s acting health officer, told reporters this week.

About 275 of the estimated 2,000 migrant agricultural workers currently in the Windsor-Essex region are now in isolation, either because they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or because they have been in close contact with infected people.

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One of the main reasons for the pause in new arrivals is that there is simply no longer a place to quarantine workers. The state-funded isolation and recovery center for migrant farmworkers in Windsor is full and local hotels are already stretched to overflow capacity, said Dr. Nesathurai.

Just a month ago, a scathing report from the Federal Auditor General said Ottawa had failed to protect migrant workers from the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Federal Minister of Labor Carla Qualtrough promised to do better.

Still, Santiago Escobar, a national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said little has changed since the pandemic began. He said the UFCW raises dozens of complaints each week from migrant agricultural workers concerned about living conditions and inadequate COVID-19 protocols. The majority of these complaints come from the Windsor-Essex region, he added.

“We wonder why the health department needs to implement these restrictions,” Mr Escobar said. “It means employers aren’t doing enough.”

In an email, Ms Qualtrough’s office said Ottawa is working with provinces and territories and governments of workers’ source countries to ensure the “safe and timely” entry of temporary foreign workers into Canada. For example, preparations are underway to move migrant workers to safe isolation sites outside the Windsor-Essex region, the email said.

More broadly, Ms Qualtrough’s office said the government is taking steps to improve the quality of inspections of employer-provided accommodation under the Temporary Foreign Workers Scheme, including by introducing additional training for inspectors and reducing backlogs. “The reform of this program is a priority for the government,” the office said.

Producers and some food policymakers have said that any additional government action must be weighed very carefully against the reality of widespread food industry labor shortages – and ultimately the need to maintain food security. There is already evidence that understaffing is affecting the food supply. For example, Exceldor, a Quebec-based poultry company, announced last week that it must begin euthanizing chickens at its plants, in part due to COVID-19 labor shortages.

“It’s not just about this situation. It’s all. The vaccination mandate at the border. Everything, really. Omicron is hitting the entire food industry right now. I’m not sure it’s appreciated enough both in Ottawa and across the country,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

Starting this weekend, a new rule will require all truck drivers crossing the border into Canada to be fully vaccinated. The move is expected to impact the large volume of fresh produce imported from the US every day.

“Yes, you want to protect the vulnerable and keep people safe. But at the same time, if our food security is compromised by these protocols, here’s something we need to figure out – a different approach,” said Dr. Charlebois.

Vegetable growers in the Windsor-Essex region echoed this.

“I’ve got every retailer in Canada right now calling me, ‘What’s up? Am I going to have a product?’” said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, which represents about 220 growers in the province.

If the ban on new foreign temporary workers stays in place for the next few weeks, there will likely be shortages of greenhouse vegetables across the country.

“If this goes on for two weeks, you’re going to have really catastrophic situations for these people,” he said, referring to the farmers. “That erases months. It would break her.”

Gerry Mastronardi, a tomato farmer in Leamington, Ontario, said the ban comes just when labor is needed most. “We are in the process of moving our facilities into our commercial operation and this letter came out,” he said. His 21-acre farm welcomed 11 migrant workers from Mexico earlier this month and is expecting 10 more workers over the next two weeks.

Without the additional workers, he said, he won’t be able to adequately maintain the over $300,000 tomato plants already planted. “These are living plants,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re on strike. you can’t grow We’ll be back in 10 days.” That’s not how it works.”

Many of these plants must be discarded, he said.

Mike von Massow, a professor of food economics at the University of Guelph, said he sympathized with the challenge facing policymakers.

“I have great sympathy for greenhouse producers who are being hurt,” he said. “But I find it very difficult to rationalize putting a group of people at risk of acute illness and death to maintain my access to beautiful tomatoes at this time of year.”

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