Virus hits foreign farmhands, challenging Canadians’ self-image

By Catherine Porter

Three weeks after they began cutting asparagus in the thawing fields, Luis Gabriel Flores Flores noticed that one of his co-workers was missing. He said he found the man shivering with a fever, in bed — where he would remain for a week.

“I was trying to tell the foremen, ‘He is very ill, he needs a doctor,’” said Flores, one of thousands of migrant farmworkers flown into Ontario in April to secure Canada’s food supply. “They said, ‘Sure, soon, later.’ They never did.”

The sprawling vegetable farm where he worked became the site of one of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. Almost 200 workers, all from Mexico, tested positive, seven were hospitalized and one died: Juan Lopez Chaparro, the one Flores said he had tried in vain to help.

The farm owner insisted that Chaparro had been treated promptly and called Flores a “bad apple” being used by activists to score political points. If that is the case, it has worked: The outbreak and others like it have spurred national protests about the systemic vulnerability of migrant farm laborers, a population unknown to many Canadians until they began to fall ill at a rate 11 times that of health workers.

Canadians pride themselves on a liberal immigration system welcoming to an array of ethnicities and nationalities, contrasting their attitude with what many see as xenophobia in their neighbor to the south. The reality does not always match the rhetoric, but Canada encourages different groups to maintain their cultures, and an embrace of multiculturalism is enshrined in Canada’s charter and self-image. When other world leaders shunned refugees from Syria’s civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed them in person, handing them winter coats.

But in importing large numbers of seasonal farm laborers from abroad and offering them no path to residence or citizenship, Canada looks disturbingly un-Canadian to many of its people. Canada admits temporary workers who stay for most of a year but requires them to return home when their contracts end (the United States does, as well, but they are outnumbered by farmworkers who are undocumented and often do stay year-round).

As in the United States, farmworkers live for months on their employers’ property, often in large bunkhouses where disease can spread easily. Those who enter Canada with work permits often return year after year with no prospect of ever legally putting down roots. Canada, at least, guarantees them health care, but on isolated farms, gaining access to that care can be difficult.

The coronavirus outbreaks prompted the Mexican government to pause sending workers to Canada for a week in June. In response, Trudeau said: “We should always take advantage of moments of crisis to reflect. Can we change the system to do better?”

Since then, his government has announced 59 million Canadian dollars (about $45 million) for improved farm housing, sanitation and inspections. But it has not offered the cure that advocates for migrant workers demand: a path to citizenship.

“We have a group of people defined as good enough to work in Canada, but not good enough to stay,” said Vic Satzewich, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “As a country we have to ask ourselves why that’s the case.”

In theory, migrant farmworkers are protected by all the laws that shield Canadian farmworkers. But their contracts state that any worker fired for cause requires “immediate removal” from the country, which keeps people from complaining about abuses, advocates say.

The federal government introduced an enforcement system in 2015, with a complaint line for migrant workers, but Canada’s auditor general called it inadequate: Only 13 of 173 planned inspections were completed in the 2016 fiscal year. This year, no farms have been found noncompliant.

“The employers have too much power over their workers,” said Flores, 36, at a protest by migrant workers and their supporters in downtown Toronto in August. Around him, masked men and women held up pictures of Chaparro, his deceased co-worker.

“It could have happened to any of us,” said Flores, a father of two from the outskirts of Mexico City, who has worked on farms across Canada in four of the past six years.

This year, the program placed him at Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers, a family-run agribusiness with a large trucking fleet and 12,000 acres in Ontario, Florida and Georgia.

He tested positive for the virus, but experienced only mild symptoms. The day after he learned of Chaparro’s death, he left the farm two hours southwest of Toronto.

He has been supported since then by the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance For Change, which helped him file a complaint with the provincial labor board, seeking CA$40,000 from Scotlynn for lost wages and suffering. He contends that he was fired for asserting publicly that the company had a role in Chaparro’s death.

The farm’s owner, Scott Biddle, said his family had hired farmworkers from Mexico for more than 30 years and never fired a single one. He said Flores was one of three workers who asked to be returned to Mexico after the outbreak began.

Biddle said his farm had strictly followed the district’s coronavirus regulations, putting almost all the workers up in hotel rooms for two rounds of quarantine. He called Chaparro’s death an unfortunate reflection of the disease’s vagaries, not of systemic failures.

“Every regulation was followed that needed to be,” he said, standing in a parking lot behind his office. “At the end of the day, these gentlemen are living in close contact, they work in close contact, they are front-line workers providing food.”

He invited a New York Times reporter to speak to three of his employees, one of whom had worked for him for 32 years.

Two confirmed that Chaparro had lain sick in bed for a week. They said that four other workers in the bunkhouse had also had fevers and that one coughed so much, they thought he had pneumonia.

“All of us were 100% convinced it was just the change in climate,” said Daniel Hernandez Vargas, a roommate of Chaparro’s who was working at the farm this spring for the first time.

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