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Ontario farm, owner facing charges tied to 2020 COVID-19 outbreak involving migrant workers

A tractor drives past the main office at the Scotlynn Group where 164 Migrant workers have tested positive for COVID-19 shutting down the asparagus farming facility temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic near Vittoria, Ont., in Norfolk County on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette .

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL) has filed charges against a Norfolk County, Ont., farm in connection with an outbreak in the spring of 2020 that saw a man from Mexico die after contracting COVID-19.

The provincial agency told Global News that 20 charges have been laid under the Reopening Ontario Act (ROA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) against Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers Inc. and owner Scott Biddle.

The filing claims the employer failed “to take every precaution reasonable” under both acts in to protect workers using masks and barriers and maintaining physical distancing at the Vittoria Road facility on dates between late June and early July of 2020.

The business faces 10 charges while Biddle faces the other 10.

Read more: Migrant worker fired for speaking about COVID 19 wins labour case against farm

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Cases reached close to 200 by mid-June of 2020 during the outbreak, with 55-year-old migrant worker Juan López Chaparro dying after working on the farm.

The father of four from Mexico had been coming to Canada for work since 2010.

It’s estimated that around 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses, according BDO Canada’s immigration services.

Last year, workers were required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in Canada amid the height of the pandemic.

Canada’s largest support group for migrant workers, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, pleaded with the federal government and the province of Ontario to reverse a decision that allowed positive asymptomatic COVID-19 farmworkers to continue to work.

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By late June of 2020, the province had seen three migrant farmworkers from Mexico die after being infected with the virus; the two others were working in Windsor-Essex.

Read more: Plea for feds to help migrant farm workers in Ontario affected by COVID-19

The ministry’s accusations also state that in at least one instance, the defendant failed to provide instructions on face coverings to a worker and failed to provide reasonable hand hygiene to protect against the virus.

Other claims include lack of instruction on the need for hand hygiene, failure to protect high-touch surfaces and equipment, failure to exclude those with a high risk of transmitting COVID-19 from work areas, failure to instruct on self-monitoring and failure to isolate symptomatic workers from others.

Global News reached out to Scotlynn Farms and Scott Biddle for comment. A reply has yet to be given by either as of Tuesday afternoon.

Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton didn’t specifically address the charges against Scottlyn when asked during a presser in Richmond Hill on Tuesday but did say that similar investigations “take time” to build.

“But again, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the laws are clear that there are serious consequences for rule breakers out there,” McNaugton said.

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“And we aren’t afraid to shut down those businesses, those workplaces that are breaking the rules.”

The MOL said penalties under the OHSA range from jail sentences of up to a year and fines up to $1.5 million.

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