The following op-ed ran in the Windsor Star on June 20, 2020
Migrant workers play a critical role in keeping supply chains flowing and putting food on all our tables. Without them, that simply would not be possible. Here in Ontario we have too often taken these workers for granted and allowed them to live in the shadows.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in the system and the unacceptable standard of the living and working conditions faced by these workers. Migrant workers are forced to live in cramped bunk houses that make physical distancing impossible, and where the virus spreads like wildfire, and without access to the same basic rights, health coverage and protections afforded to every other worker in the province.
The provincial government has been far too slow to respond to the outbreaks on farms, and has failed to take responsibility for the COVID-19 crisis among migrant workers. We are still waiting for the mobile testing units that should have been deployed months ago to test every farm worker and there is still a lack of alternative accommodations to allow them to isolate. We need to act now to deal with these outbreaks and prevent more avoidable deaths.
It took a mandatory order from the local public health unit to guarantee access to water, healthy food and a telephone for migrant workers. We should never need a public health directive to give workers the basic necessities of life.
We have known for decades that migrant workers are not treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. That needs to change. Migrant workers are human beings with the same needs and the same aspirations as everyone else.
As we prepare for a potential second wave of COVID-19 and future pandemics, we must make the much-needed long-term reforms to the system that have been swept under the rug for far too long. If we fail to learn from this crisis, we are destined to see history repeat itself.
While this is an issue across Canada, we know that the situation in Ontario is even worse than others. Only this week Mexico’s ambassador put a stop to sending migrant workers to our province, while continuing to allow workers to go to British Columbia due to the stricter rules and protections they have in place.
We can do better here in Ontario. We can protect migrant workers, and protect our rural communities, by giving them the same level respect that we would give to our own families. That includes moving away from bunk houses to provide proper places to live, mandatory sick pay so they can stay home when they are sick, and ensuring access to personal protective equipment. Too often migrant workers live in fear of deportation or repercussions for speaking up and demanding the protection they need.
It should never have taken a pandemic to expose the inhumane treatment of migrant workers in our province. Now is the time to learn the lessons and finally make the long overdue changes that will improve the lives of migrant workers, protect our rural economy, and make our food supply more resilient in the future.
Taras Natyshak is NDP MPP for Essex
Lisa Gretzky is NDP MPP for Windsor West
Percy Hatfield is NDP MPP for Windsor—Tecumseh