The federal government’s travel ban to Mexico and the Caribbean will not affect Canada’s migrant worker program.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health, says charter flights should be available if commercial flights are suspended.
Brett Schuyler of Schuyler Farms in Simcoe – a large employer of migrant workers – confirmed that farmers will be able to get the help they need this year provided they follow additional rules designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“My understanding is these are essential workers and will be exempt,” Schuyler said.
He said he is not worried about getting workers into Canada.
“I’m confident they will pull it together.”
Workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are key to the farms across Norfolk, Haldimand and Brant counties.
Schuyler said the additional precautions and testing required is more effort but “not a bad thing” if it keeps COVID numbers to a minimum.
The federal government enacted the travel ban after confirming that COVID-19 variants are circulating in Canada. The mutated viruses are easier to catch and spread faster than the virus that prompted the pandemic alert last year.
Nesathurai said travel restrictions, additional testing and documentation, and other precautionary measures are justified given that COVID-19 is endemic in Mexico and the Caribbean.
“The risk of COVID-19 infection within the residence of migrant farm workers can be expected to be greater this year overall because COVID has a greater prevalence in those countries,” he said. “And, with the new variants that can be more infectious, we could see more widespread disease.”
Nesathurai was the focus of a controversy last year involving bunkhouses and quarantine rules for migrant workers in Haldimand and Norfolk.
Other health units adopted the federal standard for calculating how many workers could perform their mandatory 14-day quarantine in any given bunkhouse. This standard allows as many workers per bunkhouse as can safely social distance two metres at all times. With this approach, the square footage of a bunkhouse determines how many workers can quarantine at once.
Nesathurai set the bar higher by requiring local farmers to cap all bunkhouse quarantines at three workers regardless of floor area. Many complained this created staffing bottlenecks that prevented farmers from situating their workforce in a timely manner according to the demands of the growing season. Some farmers walked away from their crops – asparagus most notably – due to a lack of qualified help.
He said he is one of several medical officers in southern Ontario who have petitioned Service Canada to take over the offshore quarantine program. Alternatives include supervising quarantines at federal facilities, such as army bases. The other medical officers are from Brant, Windsor-Essex, Durham Region and Chatham-Kent.
Nesathurai added that Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, also supports the petition.