Ontario pledges farm recruiter crackdown as COVID-19 outbreaks grow

Ford rips 'fly-by-nighters just trying to make a quick buck'

An image created by Nexu Science Communication, together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus, the type of virus linked to COVID-19. (Nexu Science Communication via Reuters)

Toronto | Reuters –– Ontario will crack down on “fly-by-night” recruitment agencies sending workers on to farms, the premier said on Monday, after a testing blitz identified a major coronavirus outbreak on a farm in southwestern Ontario.

“We’re reaching out to all the farmers, we’re getting a list of these recruitment agencies. We found out some are fly-by-nighters just trying to make a quick buck, so we’re going to put an end to that,” Premier Doug Ford told a press conference.

Some 60,000 people come to Canada on temporary work permits to plant and harvest crops every year, typically staying on one farm all season. Some farms also use labour contractors who move local workers from farm to farm, and that movement may have spread the virus, the local health unit said earlier on Monday.

The hard-hit farming region of Windsor-Essex reported 186 new confirmed coronavirus cases over Sunday and Monday, a 13 per cent increase in total cases, including 183 on a single farm that has not been identified.

An “overwhelming majority” of farms with outbreaks were employing short-term workers through temp agencies, ministry of labour staff said on a conference call about the outbreaks last week.

The issue is not confined to agriculture. North of Toronto in York Region, public health staff have reported temp agencies moving staff between workplaces.

In some cases, the agencies employ undocumented workers, who may feel it is too risky to seek testing, said Karim Kurji, York’s medical officer of health.

Most workplace outbreaks in York Region are in manufacturing and wholesaling, Kurji said, adding that sometimes it is difficult to get in touch with temp agencies.

Ontario has said it will pay for COVID-19 screening and care for anyone who needs it, but getting that message out is a challenge, said family doctor and activist Ritika Goel.

“A lot of people may not know, might still have fear, given their undocumented status,” she said.

— Reporting for Reuters by Allison Martell and Moira Warburton in Toronto and Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa.

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