Health minister calls treatment of some farm workers a ‘national disgrace’

Ministers discussing changes to Canada's TFW program

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu leaves a news conference in Ottawa on March 23, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Blair Gable)

Ottawa | Reuters — The treatment of migrant workers in Canada by some farmers is disgraceful and the federal government is seeking to fix the problem, the country’s health minister told a parliamentary committee on Friday, as farms battle COVID-19 outbreaks among their employees.

Outbreaks of coronavirus infections have killed three people and infected hundreds more on farms in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, in recent weeks.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she had heard stories about the treatment of migrant workers that “would curl your hair,” and the way some farms treat them now is “a national disgrace.”

Hajdu added that she was working with Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough “on how to reform the temporary foreign worker program” but gave no details on what those reforms might look like.

Canadian farmers rely on some 60,000 temporary foreign workers, predominantly from Latin America and the Caribbean, to plant and harvest crops. Many live in crowded bunkhouses where the virus can spread quickly.

“All the PPE (personal protective equipment) in the world will not protect you if you are sleeping in a bunkhouse that is housing 12 to 15 people that may not have any ability for distancing, certainly no private washrooms or kitchen,” Hajdu said when asked whether Canada would consider providing migrant workers with PPE upon their arrival in Canada.

Migrant farm workers are considered a vulnerable population and need to be supported should they fall ill, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters on Thursday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also said Canada must do more to protect migrant farm workers, who are considered essential workers.

Earlier this week, an Ontario official said the province would allow some people who have tested positive for COVID-19 but do not have symptoms to immediately return to work, provided precautions were in place.

— Kelsey Johnson reports on Canadian economic issues for Reuters from Ottawa.

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