‘Expect a visit’: Niagara’s farms under scrutiny in COVID-19 enforcement blitz

greenhouse Photo Credit: BigStock

Niagara’s agricultural and farming operations have been put on notice. 

Ontario labour minister, Monte McNaughton, recently said the region’s  agriculture sector “can expect a visit” from ministry inspectors. 

“We’re proactively going to farms, greenhouses and other locations where agricultural workers work, with a specific focus on operations employing temporary foreign workers,” the minister said in an interview with Niagara This Week. 

Ontario was home to 20,500 temporary foreign workers last year, with around 3,000 coming to Niagara annually. 

The  visits will be part of a targeted enforcement blitz, announced earlier  this month, checking for compliance with COVID-19 health and safety  measures. 

“Right  now they’re really focused on keeping COVID-19 out of workplaces,”  McNaughton said, of the ministry’s 450 inspectors, who are focusing on  health and safety plans, physical distancing, masking protocols and  pre-screening of workers.

Liaison  officers from the Mexican consulate will accompany inspectors to help  with translation when inspectors are interacting with workers. 

Over 1,780 migrant workers acquired COVID-19 while in Ontario last year, according to a Jan. 27 press release from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. Two  Niagara farm operations experienced significant outbreaks, and three  workers from Mexico died after having worked on farms in Windsor-Essex  and in Simcoe.

Housing  for migrant workers will not be inspected by the ministry — that falls  onto the federal government and regional public health.

“The  ministry of labour or the provincial government is responsible for the  workplace or the job site, really everything outside the bunkhouse,”  McNaughton clarified. 

Peter Jekel, manager of environmental health at Niagara Region Public Health,  said the region’s health inspectors have conducted 39 inspections of  migrant worker housing so far this year — inspections are ongoing. 

Both  public health and the ministry share information on workplaces that  need extra attention. Those that have experienced prior outbreaks, have a  history of non-compliance or a high volume of complaints will be  prioritized. 

“I  do think that all the farms are trying their best to comply, and I  don’t think we have sort of a quote, unquote list of problematic farms,”  Jekel said. 

McNaughton  said “98 per cent” of farms inspected last year had no cases of  COVID-19, using the stat to underscore the merit behind proactive  inspections. 

Between  April and December of last year, the ministry conducted a similar  blitz, which saw 964 field visits of agricultural operations across the  province; a 39 per cent increase over visits to farms in 2019, according  to data provided by the ministry. 

In  2020, 398 orders were issued to farms for a “variety of issues” ranging  from proper wearing of masks to posting information about COVID-19 for  workers. 

Between  March 17, 2020 and Jan. 19, 2021, the province made 83 COVID-19 related  visits to agricultural operations in Niagara and issued 18 orders,  according to ministry spokesperson Kalem McSween.

Businesses marked for a visit don’t get a heads-up, McNaughton confirmed, saying  the government’s public announcement has already provided plenty of  notice.

Asked  whether inspectors would be focusing on education rather than  enforcement, McNaughton said operations no longer have excuses for  non-compliance.

“We’re past that now; it’s about enforcing the laws that are in place,” he said.

Enforcement  can range from the issuing of orders to laying significant fines.  Inspectors are also able to enforce the province’s emergency orders and  issue tickets ranging between $750 and $1,000 to employers and  supervisors for unsafe practices.