It’s asparagus harvest season, but some of the fields in Norfolk County, Ontario, are all but empty following an outbreak of COVID-19 that has spread to 125 migrant workers from Mexico, temporarily halting production.
Last Thursday, a worker at Scotlynn Group complained of symptoms; just days later, more than half of the 216 migrant workers tested positive. Seven are hospitalized, including two in intensive care. Health officials have already started contact tracing while dozens more still awaited results. Only 33 are able to work in the field.
“It doesn’t feel real until it hits us close to home,” said Scott Biddle, the president of the company.
“People are very concerned because of the numbers.”
The workers arrived from Mexico to Biddle’s farm back in early April – already delayed due to the pandemic and travel restrictions – and underwent a 14-day quarantine before starting work. Everyone came out of the quarantine healthy and nobody showed any symptoms prior to Thursday, according to Biddle.
“When we think of congregate settings, we think of places where … a relatively large number of people share the same bathroom, same shower, same kitchen, same dining area. And it can spread very quickly among those people,” said Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, the medical officer of health for Norfolk & Haldimand Counties.
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) say the workers are afraid and scared.
“This is a deadly virus and they don’t know what will happen to them. Their family members also don’t know what’s going to happen to them here in Canada,” said Sonia Aviles of MWAC.
Adding to the challenge is the language barrier that makes communication challenging.
Meanwhile, there are worries that the outbreak may have spread elsewhere in the region, with employees at a local grocery store getting tested as well.
“The guys have had extremely limited contact with the community,” said Kristal Chopp, the mayor of Norfolk County.
“They have done their grocery shopping – they’ve done it at hours when … there haven’t been other community members present.”
Ont. Premier Doug Ford is advocating for more frequent testing for migrant workers to keep both the employees safe and the food supply chain safe.
Biddle relies on the migrant workers to produce millions of pounds of asparagus and sweet corn. To ensure his asparagus crop is harvested this year, he put out a call for local help on Facebook, offering $25 an hour. He said 150 locals were confirmed to help, but with a pay hike that’s nearly double what the migrant workers make, advocates like MWAC’s Aviles are not happy, noting that they have been working in these conditions for decades.
“There’s a lot of anger right now,” she said. Adding to the concern is the uncertainty around compensation for the workers while they are sick.
“They have passed quarantine, and now they are sick with the virus. They don’t know what is going to happen with them, and in the meantime who is going to feed their families?”
With additional files from CTV News London’s Brent Lale