Balancing workers' safety and crop production amid COVID-19 crisis
LONDON, ONT. -- On his farm near Aylmer, Ont. Kevin Howe employs 18 essential migrant workers.
However at this point, his staff from Trinidad and St. Vincent haven't even been able to leave their home countries yet.
"Farming at the best of times is a risky business, throw in a pandemic and it's that much more risky," says Howe, the operations manager of Howe Family Farms.
The federal government has approved foreign workers coming into Canada, and flights could happen as early as this week.
Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland stated however they will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
With the warm weather this spring, Howe's strawberries are already about two weeks ahead of schedule.
"Within a week the plants will stretch, and every day we delay taking that straw off, it’s a yield reduction," says Howe.
Fearing he'd be at least a month behind when his workers arrive, he'd like his staff to be able to work while isolating and distancing.
He thinks it’s possible in a 20 acre field.
However, advocates for the migrant workers fear for the safety of those coming to Canada.
The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) wants to make sure that seasonal labourers are supported whether they decide to stay home because of COVID19 or if they come. They’ve created a petition and sent a letter to cabinet.
"From the moment they get on a plane, and their housing needs them to stay two metres apart, says Syed Hussan, the executive director of MWAC.
"They need to wash hands regularly, and get income while they are quarantined..
Hussan calls this a very complex issue, and wants the government and farmers to work together to ensure safe working and sleeping conditions for the workers during and after this pandemic.
"They are critical essential workers, without them there is no food," says Hussan.
"In the face of a crisis, we can't exclude them from basic human rights regardless of their status."
Every day the workers are sidelined, farmers are having to make tough decisions. Howe is trying to determine the outcomes which will have the least amount of risk come harvest time. He was expecting to start seeding watermelons in two weeks.
"The concerning is if we plant it, and we don't have assurance we'll have our workforce, we're better off to store the seed for another year," says Howe.
"The harvest is the most labour intensive from a food safety and quality perspective and we need that trained workforce that we've been relying on for 30 years."
Currently, migrant workers are deemed as an essential service. However farmers are still confused as to what essential means, and whether that can make them exempt from an isolation period.
"We communicate via phone to the guys, and they know what to do so we can distance ourselves," says Howe.
"We can drop off food for them, and we are hoping some of those practicalities can get taken into consideration by health officials when determining the protocols for isolation."