'It's a win, win, win'; Southwestern Ontario Farm community hails worker vaccine pilot program
LONDON, ONT. -- A new vaccine pilot program at Toronto's Pearson Airport is being applauded by farmers, but questioned by temporary foreign worker (TFW) advocates.
"All I can see is a win, win, win for the community, for the employees, and for the food system," says Dusty Zamecnik, a Norfolk County farmer and chair of the Norfolk County Agriculture Advisory Board.
Avi Yufest, spokesman for the Ontario agriculture ministry, told The Canadian Press the program “went well” as the government offered shots to more than 200 workers landing on an early-morning flight from Mexico.
Officials from the ministries of health and agriculture, health-care practitioners and representatives from the Mexican Consulate were also at Pearson International Airport to meet the group, offering doses of the Moderna vaccine after the workers cleared customs.
The vaccines were administered in a screened-off area after recipients took a mandatory COVID-19 test.
Zamecnik is applauding the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA) and all other parties involved for getting this done.
He had a group of workers fly in Thursday, and another is scheduled Monday.
"We have a group flying in from Trinidad," says Zamecnik.
"It's Trinidad's first flight this season Monday, and the men have received notices that they will have the option to get a vaccine. It is completely voluntary to receive the vaccine upon arrival to Pearson".
However the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) worries whether the vaccines are actually optional.
"When workers are walking out into the airport you've got immigration enforcement and you have to fill in a lot of forms," says Syed Hussan, executive director of MWAC.
"They may not feel comfortable saying No!. We want to make sure that while workers are being offered the vaccine that they aren't actually being is being coerced into getting it".
Hussan says some workers are being threatened by employers with deportation if they aren't vaccinated.
He's also worried about a guarantee of a second vaccine dose which the Ontario government says will be provided by local health units.
Norfolk County ran two test clinics which vaccinated TFW's, and then an official clinic Saturday.
"We have vaccinated 80% of all temporary/seasonal agricultural farm workers that have been released from their mandatory federal quarantine period," says Sarah Page, COVID-19 vaccine lead and chief of paramedic services in Norfolk County.
"Over the three clinics, we have completed almost 600 vaccinations. We’ve worked closely with over 20 farms and agricultural operations across Haldimand and Norfolk Counties. Due to this collaborative effort with all of our farmers and partners, the clinics have been very successful".
Hussan says he will continue to advocate for health care on farms and permanent resident status for workers who he says are 'trapped on farms.'
"Migrant farm workers deserve vaccine access," says Hussan.
"The fact that they have to be offered at the airport instead of having the mobility to be able to leave the farm and go get it like anybody else, proved to us, yet again, that migrant farmworkers don't have the same rights and the same mobility as any other Canadian citizen".
Zamecnik will have up to 120 workers at his Langton, Ont. farm later this summer. At this point he has seen 95% of his workers vaccinated by the test clinics run by the local health unit.
He feels this vaccine rollout program at the airport is a step toward normalcy.
"There is no doubt that these people do live in congregate settings," says Zamecnik.
"This is a great way of making sure that those going into town, buying groceries, or on the farm working with also local employees expands that safety net".
Yufest said there were “no major glitches” in the rollout, but that lessons learned from the first day would be introduced into a more permanent program that will offer shots to more workers arriving next week.
With files from the Canadian Press