Hundreds of migrant farm workers in Ontario denied fresh air during quarantine

Last July, Jeremiah Sovigno found himself desperate for fresh air.

He was in the midst of quarantining for two weeks in a Brantford hotel room with windows that didn’t open.

At one point, when the local health unit called him for his daily wellness check, he asked if he could step outside for five minutes.

The person on the other end of the line said no.

“I don’t even think they would treat their dog like that. So why are you treating me as a human being like that?” Sovigno says.

For nine years, Sovigno has left his home in Trinidad and Tobago and travelled to southwestern Ontario to work on farms harvesting cherries and apples that will eventually find their way onto Canadians’ plates.

He returned to the same hotel in 2021, but this time he had a small balcony and could get some fresh air. He says he’s one of the lucky ones.

“I was just fortunate to be on this side (of the hotel) to be able to come out here today,” he told Global News from his ground-floor balcony.

Jeremiah Sovigno outside of his hotel room in Brantford, Ontario on May 7, 2021.

Sovigno is among thousands of workers who will arrive to work on farms in Haldimand and Norfolk counties this season. But many of his fellow migrant workers say they are enduring quarantine conditions that advocates are calling cruel and inhumane.

Advertisement

Migrant workers in these two counties are being treated differently than how Canada treats other international travellers. Under federal rules, travellers arriving from abroad are allowed “limited and monitored outdoor time” as long as they wear a mask and have no symptoms of COVID-19.

Since March, at least five migrant workers have died since arriving in Canada, including four who were in quarantine, according to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, an advocacy group calling for an investigation to determine the causes of the deaths.

The alliance and other advocates say there is blatant discrimination and racism in how workers in Haldimand and Norfolk are being treated and that their basic human rights are being violated.

“Denying migrant workers access to fresh air during quarantine is inhumane. It’s simply abusive,” says Fay Faraday, a labour and human rights lawyer who has worked with migrant workers for 30 years. “All human beings need access to fresh air for their physical and mental well-being and to be locked in a hotel room with windows that don’t open for 14 days with no ability to go outside is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Global News has identified at least four hotels that have housed quarantining migrant farm workers in Brantford, among a number of southern Ontario towns where workers have self-isolated. Three of them have no balconies, nor do they have windows that open.

“It’s very inhumane and the treatment is very harsh,” says Sovigno.

Shape Created with Sketch.

He says no one has explained why they are not allowed to go outside for fresh air.

“It’s really, really tough. We are essential workers. I still don’t understand why we have to go through this.”

Sovigno says this year he’s one of the lucky ones who got a small balcony, hundreds of his fellow workers are not as fortunate.

At the start of the pandemic, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit set limits on the number of workers allowed to quarantine in bunkhouses on farms due to living quarters that make it difficult to maintain physical distancing. This has forced most workers at 208 farms in the district to quarantine in hotels for the two-week period.

But the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit is the only one in the region that has implemented a rule denying fresh air breaks during quarantine. Other neighbouring counties also bring in a large number of migrant workers without imposing similar restrictions.

The chief medical officer who introduced the rule, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, declined to give Global News an interview about his decision.

In a statement, the unit said it has the second-largest population of seasonal workers per capita in Ontario, second only to Windsor-Essex, and that its “goal is to protect all 110,000 residents living within the health district, including vulnerable populations who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

It noted that a single farm outbreak in 2020 resulted in 200 cases of COVID-19, 18 hospitalizations, two workers in the intensive care unit and one death.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of migrant farm workers in Ontario denied fresh air during quarantine' Hundreds of migrant farm workers in Ontario denied fresh air during quarantine
Hundreds of migrant farm workers in Ontario denied fresh air during quarantine – May 14, 2021

In recent weeks, it said its ability to contract trace cases of COVID-19 in the region has been “curtailed” due to outbreaks on farms.

As of May 10, Haldimand-Norfolk had 158 active cases of COVID-19 and six active farm outbreaks. The health unit did not say if any migrant farm workers had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

On March 5, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit announced that Nesathurai is concluding his service as officer of health for Haldimand-Norfolk. His last day will be May 21.

“The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit will continue to focus on facilitating the safe arrival of thousands of migrant workers,” Nesathurai said in a statement.

The announcement came shortly after he received a $160,000 bonus for overtime hours accrued last year. This comes on top of his salary of $240,000 a year.

Advertisement

But he wasn’t the only officer of health in the province to receive a bonus for working overtime; Middlesex-London’s top doctor also received more than $100,000 in overtime pay. The Ontario Ministry of Health asked local boards of health to submit overtime hours last year.

More workers to arrive

Between January and April, a total of 410 seasonal agricultural workers arrived to work on farms in Haldimand-Norfolk, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. That number will continue to rise, as April and May bring in the most arrivals, the department said in a statement.

Jamaican migrant farm workers trim apple trees at Suncrest Orchards in Simcoe, Ontario, on May 7, 2021.

The local health unit estimates 4,000 migrant farm workers in total are destined for farms in Norfolk and Haldimand counties this year.

In videos filmed in March 2021 during their quarantines and sent to Global News, migrant farm workers talked about what it was like to not be allowed outside for 14 days. Global News is only identifying them by their first names because they fear deportation.

“To be locked up somewhere for about 14 days and be restricted from going outside, that is like you’re in prison,” says Demar, a recently arrived migrant worker from Jamaica.

Another worker named Melbourne, also from Jamaica, says he is “disgusted” by the fact they were being barred from going outside.

“If we could go outside, do some skipping, some running, some jumping, some fresh air, some sunlight, that would really do a lot of good,” he says.

Leanne Arnal, a local migrant farm workers advocate, has witnessed how workers are being treated.

Over the past two and a half months, she hasn’t slept in her own bed, instead living at various hotels in Brantford to assist newly arrived seasonal workers who come from countries such as Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico.

Leanne Arnal has been working tirelessly over the last few months to make the 14-day quarantine as comfortable as possible for workers. (Courtesy: Leanne Arnal).

She says she often hears migrant workers from the Haldimand-Norfolk district complain about being stuck inside while looking out their windows at other workers getting fresh air outdoors.

Four Norfolk farmers have now hired her to provide support for workers in quarantine. She does daily wellness checks and also ensures they have food and medical supplies. She even arranges virtual activities for the workers to do while self-isolating, like talent shows and games.

It’s 24/7 work but she says workers desperately need support during this challenging period.

“They leave their friends and families to come here for most of the year,” she says.

“They come here and do work that we ourselves won’t do.”

Shape Created with Sketch.

But not all farmers have someone like Arnal taking care of workers while they are in quarantine. The local health unit guidelines only state that employers must deliver food and toiletries to workers and provide access to laundry once a week. Often those roles fall to hotel staff, Arnal says.

“Hotel staff has been great but it comes to a point where they are overwhelmed,” Arnal says. “It’s a lot of stress for the hotel staff.”

Arnal says people often reach out to her for help. She says recently a large group of Mexican workers who were not under her care stuck notes to the hotel room doors on napkins asking for snacks and supplies.

Advertisement

“It’s alarming,” Arnal says. “There would be notes on the door that were written in Spanish on a napkin stuck by a piece of bubble gum with people asking for supplies. They don’t have Wi-Fi. They hadn’t communicated with their families.”

She says they often asked for food and water, as well. She or hotel staff try to find someone to translate the notes in order to help.

Mental toll on workers

For many workers, this might not be the last time they have to go through a two-week quarantine period with no access to fresh air. If the farm they work at experiences an outbreak, they will have to go through it all over again.

Kevin Daniels, a seasonal worker who’s been coming to Canada for nine years, says he has had trouble sleeping since spending 14 days inside a hotel room last November. He went into quarantine after the farm he worked on experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. He was among 87 of his colleagues who were forced to quarantine after 13 workers tested positive for the virus, according to Arnal.

“The internet system was poor so you cannot connect with family members,” he says. “It was the first time experiencing winter and then you had to be locked up in a room, couldn’t go outside, exercise, anything.

“You’re locked up in a room that hasn’t been cleaned in 14 days, the food is horrible, and now I have a serious sleeping condition from November until now.”

He says the experience was “horrific” and that he now has to use medication to sleep.

“And then they are expected to go out and be healthy and go to work,” Arnal says.

Some farmers are also concerned with the restrictions being placed on workers prior to their arrival at their farms.

Apple farmer Hayden Dooney, co-owner of Suncrest Orchards, says the migrant workers who come to work on his farm during the season are like family and sacrifice a lot to be here.

“What it takes to leave your families and come here, just that alone is a significant stride,” he says. “I definitely value and respect them for what they do when they come here.”

Amanda and Hayden Dooney, co-owners of Suncrest Orchards, in their apple orchards in Simcoe.

Dooney says he disagrees with the health unit’s policy denying workers outdoor time during quarantine and that he and other farmers have tried to create a dialogue with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit to no avail.

“I think it really brings around the question of what we’re actually trying to achieve here,” Dooney says. “At the end of the day, this is quarantine. It needs to be a quarantine. And it’s not supposed to be a prison sentence for these guys.”

Arnal says she asked Nesathurai, the chief medical officer in the region, three times last year and again this year at the beginning of the season to let the workers have 15 minutes of monitored time outside one by one as federal rules allow, but the answer is always the same.

“The answer was ‘No.’ Straight up, no.”

In a statement, the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit said farm workers “are at a significantly higher risk of exposure and infection than the average resident” due to the congregate housing for workers.

“In the context of public health resources available and past experiences/challenges encountered during the 2020 farming season, the Health Unit’s public health management plan aims to protect these individuals and mitigate negative outcomes.”

The health unit did not share the details of its public health management plan and would not explain how preventing workers from taking monitored outdoor breaks would put them at risk.

According to Ontario’s plan to prevent and manage outbreaks on farms released last November, migrant farm workers “did not bring the virus to Ontario but rather contracted it after they arrived.”

Advertisement

It cited the housing accommodations provided to workers and an inability to social distance that drove the spread of the virus in the region last year, not workers coming in from abroad.

Jamaican migrant farm workers trim apple trees at Suncrest Orchards in Simcoe, Ontario, on May 7, 2021.

It is up to employers to provide workers with accommodations, food and other necessary supplies during workers’ quarantine. Both the Ontario and federal governments have provided financial support to farmers to help offset costs.

The federal government offers employers $1,500 per worker to cover costs related to the mandatory 14-day isolation period. Employers can also apply for additional funding “for improvements to employee living quarters, temporary or emergency housing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other health and safety measures.”

In addition to isolating for two weeks, workers undergo multiple COVID-19 tests before and after arriving in Canada. Workers must test negative before getting on the plane. They are then tested upon arrival, 72 hours later, and then again eight days later. Workers must test negative in order to leave quarantine and go to a farm to work.

They are also offered the COVID-19 vaccine upon arrival at the airport, but are still required to quarantine for two weeks.

Federal failure

Norfolk’s Mayor Kristal Chopp, who also is the chair of the county’s board of health, says she has “great concerns” about the local health unit’s no fresh air policy.

“We have voiced those concerns about the current practice of not allowing migrant workers to be able to access fresh air during the quarantine period.”

“Migrant farm workers should not be treated differently than Canadians,” Chopp says.

Shape Created with Sketch.

She says she’s advocated for the Ontario or federal government to take over the quarantine program so that the same rules apply to everyone.

“Not only would it ensure that adequate resources were available (to monitor workers for outdoor breaks), but it would ensure things like the proper health checks throughout the quarantine period were able to be done,” she says.

Migrant farm workers come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, a federal program that allows employers to apply to bring in workers from abroad when there are labour shortages in Canada.

Chopp says the federal government has failed to provide adequate support to ensure that workers are safe this season.

“Ultimately, it’s a federal program and the federal government, in my view, really needs to step up to manage this. Imagine the resources that they would have taken unburdened from local health units in these rural areas. It would be significant,” Chopp says.

Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp says she has voiced concerns about the local health unit’s rule that bars workers from going outside for fresh air but it’s fallen on deaf ears.

In a statement, Employment and Social Development Canada said it has “boosted protections” for workers and “is strengthening its efforts to better support employers and workers” this season, including providing employers with guidance on how to manage workers’ quarantine, increasing inspections of employers during the worker’s quarantine period, and investing $6 million in migrant worker organizations to provide direct assistance to workers during quarantine and throughout the season.

The department would not say if any government-funded migrant worker organizations are supporting workers in Haldimand and Norfolk.

Both the federal government and the Ontario Ministry of Health declined to say whether they were aware that Nesathurai was not allowing workers fresh air breaks during quarantine. Both governments also declined to say whether they would take action to overrule the local health unit.

Advertisement

Despite having a year to respond and improve conditions for seasonal workers arriving, migrant rights advocates say the federal government has again put workers in harm’s way.

“The fact that they haven’t figured out how to ensure that this is a humane process shows where their priorities are and the priorities are not ensuring the well-being of the essential workers,” says Faraday.

“The federal government, despite us raising this cry now for 15 months, has refused to enact specific guidelines around how quarantine is structured, including the right to fresh air,” says Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

“They’ve consistently issued suggestions which are not enforceable, not by migrants and not by anybody else.”

The organization is calling on the federal government to put in place enforceable guidelines around mobility, adequate and culturally appropriate meals, access to phones, health care and support “to ensure workers have access to basic rights and protections.”

Not just in Haldimand-Norfolk

Hussan says the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has heard accounts of migrant workers being denied fresh air across the country, despite public health guidelines.

“This is a result of federal inaction and the public health unit. Haldimand-Norfolk is in no way an exception.”

“The buck stops with Prime Minister Trudeau’s door,” says Hussan. “The fact that people are feeling that they are being treated worse than animals is because they don’t have the power to speak up and that power is being taken away from them because they are temporary. That’s why we have been calling on the federal government to ensure full and permanent immigration status for every migrant and undocumented person in the country.”

Five deaths this year already

Five migrant farm workers have died this season, according to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. Four of the deaths occurred while they were in quarantine.

None of the farm workers who died fell under the Haldimand-Norfolk health district. Global News has not been able to verify if any of the deceased were prevented from going outdoors.

Arnal, the advocate providing support at hotels for workers, has questions about how these people died in quarantine.

“We don’t know what people are challenged with mentally, and what their capabilities are handling things,” she says, speaking to the mental toll 14 days in isolation could have on someone.

  • Logan Grant, 57, from Jamaica died in a hotel in Ontario on March 13, 2021 after being in quarantine for eight days. He was supposed to work on a farm in Newmarket, ON.
  • Roberto Jacob Baca Gomez, age unknown, from Mexico died in Alberta on March 22, 2021 after being in quarantine for three days.
  • Jose Antonio Coronado, 44, died in Port Elgin, Ont., on April 23, 2021 after being in quarantine for seven days. He was supposed to work on a farm in Port Elgin.
  • Romario Morgan, 23, from St. Vincent died in a hotel in Mississauga, Ont., on April 29, 2021 after being in quarantine for 13 days. He was supposed to work on a farm in Scotland, Ont.
  • Name and age unknown, from Jamaica died at a hospital in Tillsonburg, Ont., on April 30, 2021 after being hospitalized. He was supposed to work on a farm in Brantford.

It is unknown how these people died.

“The safety and well-being of temporary foreign workers continues to be a priority for the Government of Canada,” Employment and Social Development Canada said in a statement.

The department would not say if any of the deaths are being investigated, but said that in the case of a death, it works closely with provinces to determine next steps, including if an investigation is warranted.

Ontario’s ministry of labour says it’s only aware of one death. It was notified of a COVID-19 related death of a migrant farm worker on March 15 at Green Valley Farms near Newmarket, Kalem McSween, the ministry’s spokesperson said in a statement. An investigation into the death is ongoing.

Advertisement

Green Valley Farms could not be reached for comment.

McSween says the ministry has not been notified of any other deaths of migrant workers on farms this year.

COVID-19 outbreaks on farms outpacing last year

Last year, between March 2020 and Dec. 31, there were 3,232 COVID-19 outbreaks on farms or at food processing workplaces in Ontario. This year, there have already been 2,486 outbreaks in just four months, according to provincial data.

“We are talking about huge numbers that continue to grow,” says Hussan. “And the season has barely begun.”

This year, there have been 30 farm outbreaks in Haldimand and Norfolk counties, according to the health unit.

As of April 10, Ontario has been offering vaccines to migrant farm workers at Toronto Pearson International Airport, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. If workers don’t receive a vaccine at the airport, they can get it through the provincial vaccination clinics.

The Haldimand-Norfolk health unit says it has been able to vaccinate approximately 1,300 farm workers to date and will be co-ordinating second doses for all workers who have been given their first doses at the airport.

The health unit did not specify whether that number reflects first doses or both.

Jeremiah Sovigno had a week left in quarantine before being transferred to the farm where he will spend seven months harvesting apples and cherries that will feed hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

“We do provide a lot of major work in Canada. We have a big part in the agricultural sector. Please help us.”