Migrant Workers Alliance calls for changes after newest death in Haldimand Norfolk

Migrant Workers Alliance calls for changes after newest death in Haldimand Norfolk
NORFOLK—Fausto Ramirez Plazas of Mexico is shown in a photo posted to the Procyk Farms Migrant Worker Facebook group announcing his death on May 20, 2021 from COVID-19. —Submitted photo.

By Mike Renzella

The Haldimand Press

HALDIMAND/NORFOLK—Fausto Ramirez Plazas of Mexico is the latest migrant farm worker to die of COVID-19 while quarantining after his arrival in Canada. Plazas was quarantining in an undisclosed location in Norfolk while waiting to work at Procyk Farms in Wilsonville, a large agricultural business that brings in over 400 migrant workers each year. He is the fifth confirmed migrant death while quarantining in Ontario this year.

“He tested negative on his pre-travel test and negative on his COVID test that was administered on arrival at Pearson,” said Karen Cocq, Campaign Co-ordinator for the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC). “When he did his mandatory test 10 days into quarantine, he tested positive.”

MWAC is alleging that the farm is complicit, through negligence, in the death. Plazas arrived in Canada on April 22, one week after cases were confirmed at Procyk Farms. According to Cocq, some workers have told MWAC that they were placed with up to five other workers in a single location for their quarantine, a claim denied by the farm.

“Do they not know that rules and regulations have been put in place that we’re not allowed to do that?” asked Paul Procyk, Owner and President, asserting they have kept to one worker per hotel room and three workers per farm residence as required. He also denied that Procyk Farms has rented out an unspecified venue instead of using hotels to quarantine some migrant workers, another  claim made by MWAC.

“The Federal guidelines are very clear that workers are to be isolated from each other until the 14-day period has passed and they receive a negative test result. That was not the case with Procyk,” countered Cocq.

Danny Procyk, another owner of the business, has been outspoken on social media in his denouncement of COVID safety guidelines related to masking and vaccine administration, however The Press was unable to reach him for comment. The posts and comments have since been removed from social media, but not before being screenshot and shared publicly by MWAC.

“All the rules and regulations are being followed. If there’s any concerns about the rules, that’s the public health department and our government,” said Paul, who refused to comment on Plaza’s death any further.

Cocq maintained, “It’s clear that Procyk is not following the guidelines for quarantine that are required to keep workers safe. It’s also clear that the federal government isn’t doing anything about the fact that workers are dying while in quarantine.”

According to the farm, Ramirez Plazas was in quarantine with two other workers who tested positive. A virtual memorial service was held on Friday afternoon, which included Ramirez Plazas’ family through an app. Allison Hernandez made a statement on the Procyk Farms Migrant Worker Facebook group following the death. A translation of her statement reads, “He had been a valued member of our team since 2017 and will be greatly missed. Please keep Fausto’s family in your thoughts while you are going through this difficult time.”

The issue of too many workers to a room is just one of many related to migrant worker policies being questioned by MWAC and other advocates. One other major issue in Haldimand and Norfolk, due to stricter quarantine measures from former Medical Officer of Health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, dictates that workers coming to Haldimand and Norfolk need to remain in their rooms for the entirety of the 14-day quarantine period. Workers from other health districts, many staying in the same hotels, are allowed to go outside for fresh air and exercise.

“The Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit’s goal is to protect all 110,000 residents living within the health district, including vulnerable populations who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said Nesathurai.

He added, “Seasonal agricultural workers are at a significantly higher risk of exposure and infection than the average resident, largely in part due to these individuals living in congregate settings where they are sharing washrooms, kitchens, and other facilities.”

Haldimand and Norfolk sees roughly 4,000 migrant workers per year with the second highest population of workers per capita in the province, with approximately 208 local farms using seasonal migrant labour.

“One positive case amongst workers can have extremely negative impacts on farm workers, farm families, and the broader community. In 2020, one farm outbreak alone resulted in more than 200 individuals testing positive, 18 hospitalizations, two workers on a ventilator, and one death,” said Nesathurai, referring to an outbreak at Scotlynn Farms in Vittoria last summer.

Nesathurai claims the strict restrictions are designed to protect the workers, citing over 30 farm outbreaks in the health district so far in 2021 as  proof of the need for the tougher measures. Advocates disagree strongly with his assessment.

“These restrictions that are harder on migrant workers, that limit their access to fresh air and decent food, really shows that they’re not respected as human beings,” said Cocq, “that they’re not given the freedom of mobility, that their freedom of speech, that their basic rights to health care, to workplace rights, don’t matter.”

Fay Faraday, a social justice lawyer from Toronto who specializes in human rights, labour, and employment law, has been fighting for migrant worker rights for over 30 years.

“There’s this idea that migrant workers are a source of risk to the domestic population. It’s something that feeds into a long history of systemic racism in Canada. It’s dangerous to turn that into official policy. It’s also discriminatory to treat one group of people differently, when some people in quarantine have access to fresh air while others are deemed to be not entitled to it,” she said. “None of us who have rights of permanent residence or citizenship would put up with that.”

She continued, “Prisoners in solitary confinement have to be allowed out every day for fresh air and exercise. What we are dealing with is essential workers who do physical labour, who are growing the food we eat, and we are essentially locking them in to buildings with no access to fresh air for a period that in international rights law would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. That is unfathomable that this is considered okay.”

Cocq agrees with the sentiment: “What those measures … really prioritize is the safety of community members as though migrant workers are the risk for bringing in COVID, even though every migrant worker that has died of COVID in Canada was infected after they had arrived from community spread.”

According to Faraday, the pandemic is only shining a light on previously exisiting inequalities in migrant worker policies: “This entire system of migrant farm labour was created at a time when Canada’s immigration system explicitly excluded black and brown people from immigrating to Canada. It was created specifically in order to bring black workers from Jamaica and the Caribbean to work, but not to immigrate. The idea was that if Canada could benefit from the labour, it would lessen the pressure to seek permanent immigration.”

She continued, “While the explicitly race-based immigration system was repealed in the late 60s, this program wasn’t. This program has expanded and continues to grow.”

Both Faraday and Cocq agree that the solution is granting permanent residency status to migrant workers, giving access to proper health care and the power to advocate for their rights. Cocq explained, “Because their ability to stay in the country and work and send money home depends on their employers, it means that workers have no power to assert the social rights that they do have, because they always risk the threat of reprisal and deportation.”

Last year, a migrant worker from Scotlynn Farms was fired after speaking out about the conditions that led to the 200-person outbreak last summer. He took his case to the labour board and won, proving that the threat of job loss and deportation was used in an attempt to silence his concerns.

“Until the government addresses that fundamental problem with their immigration status, we’re going to continue to see more outbreaks, more people falling ill, more violation of worker’s rights, and more deaths,” said Cocq. “The government … has left the safety and the well-being and the lives of workers in the hands of employers who view them as cheap labour.”

Faraday claims that politicians largely ignore the issue because they do not hear about it from constituents, noting that the migrant workers in question cannot vote. It should be noted that permanent residents do not gain the right to vote.

“Even though these are essential workers, the quarantine policy is not designed with their health in mind. It is cruel and unusual and is putting these workers at incredible physical, psychological, and emotional risk,” summed up Faraday.

Cocq added, “We’ve been sounding the alarm bell since COVID hit last year, that the housing and living conditions of migrant workers were going to produce tragic, disastrous results … and we’ve unfortunately been proven right.”

Nesathurai pointed responsibility back at the federal government: “(HNHU) has continuously requested that the federal government vaccinate seasonal agricultural workers upon their arrival.”

To date, the HNHU has vaccinated 1,400 migrant workers, with plans underway for them to receive their second doses.

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