Farmers deserve better than feds’ choice of COVID-19 testing firm

International farm workers and others entering Canada have complained about wait times accessing online Switch nurses, lost tests, delays and inaccurate results. | Screencap via switchhealth.ca

The company tasked with managing coronavirus tests for travellers entering Canada continues to cause headaches for farmers and the international workers they employ.

Switch Health is managing the initial tests being given to travellers within 24 hours of entering Canada, and the second test given several days later.

Over one year into the pandemic, it is reasonable to expect processes like this to be effectively managed. That has not been the case.

International farm workers and others entering Canada have complained about wait times accessing online Switch nurses, lost tests, delays and inaccurate results. The company’s inability to adequately serve francophone clients exacerbated problems, particularly in Quebec.

Ken Forth, president of Ontario’s Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Service, told Glacier FarmMedia’s Diana Martin the stress among producers is “huge.”

“We’ve got our life on the line here, our financial life on the line of our families, and we’re relying on a lab test that cannot be done consistently,” said Forth.

Switch was offered nearly $100 million for its services. Better results are expected.

Social media is littered with complaints about the company, despite it having months to work out any initial kinks.

Farmers deserve better.

More importantly, the thousands of people who choose to leave their homes and come to Canada for work deserve better.

Canadians depend on international workers to ensure crops are planted and harvested on time.

We deserve better.

Forcing workers to isolate for longer than necessary because of delays, or preventing them from working due to inaccurate test results, is not a good way to ensure good will among migrant workers.

There are reports of four migrant farm workers dying while in quarantine since mid-March. More died at other points throughout the pandemic. Mexico temporarily stopped workers from coming to Canada after lobbying by migrant worker advocates.

Conditions for temporary foreign workers are precarious enough to bring legitimate calls for massive reforms.

The COVID-19 pandemic loudened those calls, particularly after farm worker deaths.

Advocates and academics have previously called on the government to give foreign workers access to Employment Insurance, improve on-farm enforcement of the rules and allow workers a better path to citizenship.

If Canada’s food supply chain is relying on these workers, then offering them these basics is a no-brainer.

The Migrant Rights Network continues to attract mainstream media attention for its advocacy on this file, most recently with the release of its report “Exclusion Disappointment, Chaos and Exploitation.”

It takes direct aim at the federal government’s planned pathway to permanent residency program for temporary workers.

That program is granting permanent status to temporary workers who possess certain skill sets, and a portion of the 90,000 available slots available will go to those involved in the production of food.

Critics say the program excludes more than one million migrant workers in Canada, including all of those living in Quebec. It has been critiqued for being too costly for applicants, and having stringent requirements to prove education or language competencies.

That echoes concerns raised by some farm groups, who contend previous pathways to permanent residency programs have come with too many stipulations, and expenses, attached.

This far into the pandemic, Canadians and temporary foreign workers deserve better.

A new report from Ontario’s deputy chief coroner offers 35 recommendations to improve safety for migrant workers in the province, including using isolation centres and random COVID tests.

At the very least, all governments in Canada should pay attention to reports like this.

Canadians, and migrant workers, deserve it.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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