The federal and provincial governments are investing an additional $11.6 million to protect agri-food workers from COVID-19 after the summer months saw a slew of farm outbreaks and three migrant workers die of the virus.
The funds are available for farmers and producers to offset the expenses of improving health and safety measures, such as installing physical barriers for worker separation, upgrading HVAC systems or enhancing hand-washing stations.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has reminded us all of the importance of our food supply chain,” said Ontario’s agriculture minister, Ernie Hardeman. “We’re working with the sector to reinforce its capacity and its strength.”
Southwestern Ontario’s rich farm belt has faced a rash of COVID-19 outbreaks since the pandemic began. In Ontario, more than 1,800 migrant and farm workers have tested positive for the virus, according to advocacy group Justice 4 Migrant Workers (J4MW).
Three migrant workers in the province have died of COVID-19. Data from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board show the agriculture industry has logged 1,265 COVID-19-related claims.
Some 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year. Windsor-Essex, which has seen the bulk of the region’s farm coronavirus outbreaks, plays host to about 8,000 temporary foreign workers annually.
The new funding is in addition to a previous provincial investment of $15 million through the Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program, bringing the total funds available to Ontario farmers and producers to $26.6 million.
Under the expanded program, farmers can claim half their preventive expenses for a maximum of $15,000. Expenses could include workplace modifications, purchasing personal protective equipment or providing transportation and temporary housing.
Farmers can also receive up to $100,000 for small capital projects, like housing modifications.
The communal bunkhouses many migrant workers live in came under fire in the summer for cramped conditions that some activists say have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
“Rather than strengthen legislation to protect the most vulnerable workforce in Ontario, both levels of government consistently throw millions in subsidies at the agricultural industry while leaving the workers to fend for themselves during this pandemic,” said Chris Ramsaroop, with J4MW.
He said concrete steps need to be taken to address the “power imbalance inherent in the industry” so workers have better living and working conditions.
Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal agriculture minister, said she is working with the federal ministers of labour and immigration to beef up safety requirements on farms ahead of next year.
She said more inspections and new housing standards are in the works.
“The industry is working collaboratively with the government of Ontario to put the right measures to further protect our workers going forward,” said Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
While the bulk of this year’s harvest is complete and most temporary foreign workers have returned to their home countries, some could begin arriving back in Ontario as early as January.
Currie said the additional funding will help “settle some of those rattled nerves” farmers felt while facing extra financial pressures amid the pandemic and allow them to install “more long-term or permanent solutions” to keep workers safe.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.