By Professor Janet McLaughlin
COVID-19 has exposed and at the same time worsened many preexisting inequities. Invisible to most Canadians prior to the pandemic, migrant agricultural workers from countries like Mexico and Jamaica, who labour in Canada on temporary contracts, gained national and even international media attention this year, but for all the wrong reasons: they were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. With well over 1,600 workers infected and three deaths, agricultural workers are among the most widely impacted groups in Canada.
What makes this grim reality both tragic, and infuriating is that this was predicted. In early spring of 2020, my colleagues and I formed the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group to raise awareness about the vulnerabilities that migrant workers faced in the context of COVID-19, and to make evidence-based recommendations to all levels of government to improve their health and safety.
Based on decades of research and clinical work, we warned that migrant workers would be particularly at risk. They lack full protections at work, fear losing precarious jobs with tied temporary work permits, and face numerous barriers to health care. With dozens of workers often sharing cramped living quarters, when infections occur, they can spread like wildfire. That’s exactly what happened.
All three of the workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 in Ontario were from Mexico; all were relatively young, and all were here to grow our food and to support their families.
The first to die was Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero at 31-years-old. Bonifacio was self-isolating in a hotel when his condition deteriorated. He died shortly after calling for emergency help, his final moments spent alone. He had no previous health conditions. Unsettling questions remain over whether he would have survived had he received more supports, such as regular check-ins by health officials, which could have led to earlier medical interventions.
Juan López Chaparro was a loving husband and father of four who died after over 200 workers were infected with COVID at his place of employment, Scotlynn Group. The bunkhouses at this farm held some 70 workers per unit. He died at the age of 55 after a decade of working in Canada.
Rogelio Muñoz Santos was just 24 years old when he died. He was an undocumented worker, who labour advocates believe could have been a victim of human trafficking. Rogelio and his co-workers were placed in overcrowded housing and not provided with information about how to protect themselves from COVID-19, or the equipment to do so.
The conditions that led to these workers’ deaths were neither inevitable nor unforeseeable. It is time for us to show we value those who produce the food we eat and protect migrant workers’ lives and health as much as we do our own. We need immediate action to reform policies surrounding migrant worker programs to ensure they provide these essential workers with safe and dignified living and working conditions, full access to rights and protections without fear, and the option to change employers and ultimately to become permanent residents. No more workers should be placed at a position of peril in Canada.
Associate Professor of Community Health, Wilfrid Laurier University
Research Associate, International Migration Research Centre
Co-coordinator, Migrant Worker Health Project & Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group