By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
TOWNSEND—Narisha Boodram of Trinidad and Tobago has been coming to Haldimand and Norfolk for the past 14 years as a migrant worker. She works at Schuyler Farms in Townsend, and she is one of thousands of migrant workers entering the area who faced strict quarantine measures this year at the directive of former Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Dr. Shanker Nesathurai.
Like many in the area, Boodram was directed to quarantine for 14 days at a Brantford hotel prior to starting work for the season, even though she and her co-workers did not return home last year and instead lived out the winter inside of their bunkhouses at Schuyler Farms.
Boodram said her employers went out of their way to make the workers feel a sense of home during their extended stay over the winter, citing last Christmas as an example when the bunkhouse was decorated with festive lights and the workers got the full holiday experience for their first winter in Canada. Once she found herself in the hotel though, things changed quickly.
During her first quarantine on arrival in Canada in 2020, she quarantined at the farm with access to the outdoors and attentive employers taking care of her needs.
“The second quarantine was hell,” she said. “The room was so humid. Thank God I had a balcony. I could step outside.”
Not all workers had that luxury. Boodram described how the stuffy hotel room immediately started giving her sinus issues. When she informed a visiting doctor, she could only access Tylenol for the symptoms and was instructed to take another COVID test, and then another when she asked again days later.
“I suffered in that hotel room…. When my nose started to bleed, I had to roll toilet paper and stick it up my nose because it was so bad,” she explained, referring to continuous days of nosebleeds she claims started after they pushed through her sinuses during the second COVID test.
Leanne Arnal of Waterford has been hired by four farms in the Norfolk area to live on-site at the various hotels, where she has spent the last three months helping provide care for quarantining workers. She verified that Boodram wasn’t the only worker experiencing issues like this: “I’ve had to take a couple people to the hospital for excessive nosebleeds from the testing. They get tested 72 hours before they come, then at the airport, and now eight days later. A lot of them have nosebleeds from that and sinus issues and stress. Maybe they have relationship issues or worries back home; some have lost family members. A man in there lost his daughter at the same time as he was quarantining. There’s a lot going on.”
Arnal has 15 years of experience in the farm community, giving her “compassion as an advocate” for migrant workers. Her current position includes facilitating doctor appointments, bringing supplies, and running virtual games to give the workers a feeling of community: “It’s a challenge for them to be locked up that long; the farms want to make sure that they’re okay.… My hope is that they are coming out healthy mentally and physically and ready to go to work not stressed out.”
Although she is adamant that many local farms go the extra mile to make sure their workers are provided for, Arnal has seen situations in which workers were dropped off with no support from the farm.
“A farm came in … and it took four days for supplies to come to the guys. They don’t speak English,” explained Arnal. “There would be notes, written in Spanish on a napkin, stuck with a piece of bubble gum on the door or left on the floor. I would have a translator translate them for me. One gentleman hadn’t contacted home since he got there because he didn’t know how to work the Wi-Fi, he didn’t know if he could drink the tap water.”
She continued, “The only food they were getting was what was left from hotel staff…. They didn’t have supplies, snacks, or beverages for four days…. Somebody at the hotel said, ‘Well, they could call down to the front desk.’ I said, ‘Could they?’ The instructions on the telephone inside of the room are in English.”
Arnal noted that while Best Western offers balconies for fresh air, they are not available at the Marriott and the Hampton Inn. She added, “The windows don’t even open. The groups I have over there, it’s a lot more of a challenge.”
While other health districts allow migrant workers to exit their rooms for fresh air, Haldimand and Norfolk does not. Arnal explained, “You have these guys who are looking out the window and seeing farm workers from a different area … out there having a cigarette or walking around getting some fresh air for 15 minutes and they have none. It’s a huge issue.”
“There’s no justification for it and it’s disgusting,” said Arnal of Nesathurai’s policies, also mentioning how bunkhouses are blocked off with caution tape or markers. “That’s not necessary. Most of his decisions, I can’t find a reason or rationale for any of them.”
While Nesathurai has left his role, the interim MOH has said he does not intend to change any of the orders and will instead leave those decisions to the permanent MOH once hired.
Arnal said quarantine hotels for returning Canadians are set up with supplies and medical staff, noting the stark difference for migrant workers: “These guys are just being put in a room and, as far as I know, I’m the only one who is staying on-site.”
On receiving food in the hotel, Boodram described, “They give us food like a dog … (with) the box outside our door…. In the morning, a boiled egg with one small muffin and a small cup of orange juice. Sometimes I got cornflakes and milk…. At lunch you get a sandwich and a little salad, and in the evening you’re given some rice and a piece of chicken. That’s it.”
The worst part of it all for Boodram was the isolation: “I would call home and cry and talk to them. I was out of my mind because I’ve never been locked away so long. On the farm we’re always on the go.”
She continued, “How you treat the farm workers is obscene. We’re the ones coming up here year after year and making sure that for Canadians here in this country, food is produced.”
“It’s wrong how you treat farm workers…. Some people work here for 40 to 50 years and still they get nothing out of it and treated like crap,” she continued. “To get that treatment in that hotel … better we stay back in our country because we never get treated that way.”
Boodram summed up her feelings: “We’re supposed to be equal like the rest of them…. We leave our families to come here, and we want to reach home alive.”
Arnal hopes that in the future these issues will no longer exist: “These are working people who pay taxes. They’re strong, smart people who come here to work. They are essential workers. How do you treat essential workers coming into Canada? You treat them the same.”