We need do more to protect agriculture workers from COVID-19 Ontario Farmers are prepared to lead.

  • National Newswatch

My local grocery store recently installed 'one way' arrows in each aisle, in order to control the flow of shoppers and help enforce social distancing. By and large it seems to work. People who used to mill about the store in any old direction now take the time to dutifully plan their circuit through the building in order to protect themselves and others.Four months ago, nobody was thinking that shoppers needed floor directions in order to move from the egg aisle and get to the produce. But that was before the pandemic changed how all of us assess risk. Whether we are talking about mask wearing, enforcing two-metre social distancing, or avoidance of communal areas, the threat of the virus has compelled all of us to embrace subtle, but significant, changes in our day-to-day lives.Today Canadian farmers and, in particular farmers who depend on temporary agricultural workers, find themselves facing a similar challenge.For more than five decades, Canada has been a destination of choice for international agricultural workers who come to this country under one of two federal government programs — the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) or the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program — in order to earn a living in labour-intensive sectors like fruit and vegetable growing.For much of the past 50 years, the programs have offered all sides a win-win. For the workers, Canadian agricultural work provides an opportunity to support their families back home by earning a wage that is just not available to them in their home country. For the farmers, who often operate in rural areas without the local labour supply their farms require, foreign workers are the difference between them being able to put fresh produce on your kitchen table or being forced out of business altogether. Governments, too, have always championed the important role of these programs. The system is highly regulated and rigorously inspected, with participation from all three levels of government.The pandemic, however, has exposed vulnerabilities and made us all realize we need to take a closer look at how we do things. The travel, working, housing and living arrangements offered on farms is designed to ensure that workers can remain comfortable, safe and well-fed during their time working in Canada. However, like other congregate settings such as long-term care homes and correctional facilities, the shared accommodation spaces that many workers use have proven to be insufficient in containing this disease. To date, more than 500 of these agricultural workers in Ontario have been infected by COVID-19; a number which, tragically, includes three fatalities.Ontario farmers agree that everyone involved in this process has to do better. The foreign worker programs are essential to the security of our food supply and the viability of farms and rural communities across Canada. But we need to rethink old assumptions and take immediate steps to protect the health and safety of the workers on our teams.Working with government agencies to implement higher public health standards, particularly in housing, is an important first step. It is clear our standard protocols and certifications will need to be revised and updated in order to be reflective of pandemic situations. Traditional bunking arrangements that might have made sense 20 years ago, or even two years ago, simply do not work in a world where staying safe requires workers to stay apart. Every agricultural worker is also right to expect that they have access to PPE, that communal spaces will remain well sanitized and that they will have prompt access to testing and emergency health-care services in the event they fall ill. And, in the case of an illness or mandatory quarantine, agricultural workers deserve peace of mind that they can prioritize their health without jeopardizing their livelihoods.The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is committed to engaging expert opinion in order to provide input into the public health guidance for this new world. We are also actively engaging with municipal, provincial and federal authorities, to ensure that all farm operators and worker recruitment agencies are operating at acceptable standards. Every farmer is keenly aware that even one bad actor risks tarnishing all farmers with the same brush. Nobody is angrier than farmers that some operators have apparently failed to protect their workers during the crisis. Those that do so have betrayed the entire agriculture community.Farmers and farm workers deserve better. For many of us, treating our workers with dignity and respect is a source of pride; we've built longstanding relationships with many of our workers and consider them valuable members of our team. They deserve to know we've got their back and will do whatever it takes to keep them safe.COVID-19 has revealed the need for changes and for holding ourselves to a higher standard. And the message that Ontario farmers have for our workers, and for the customers who rely on us – we are prepared to do our part.Keith Currie is a Collingwood-area farmer and President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.