Health officials should follow advice of migrant advocates

Reports of vaccinations for seasonal farm employees and workers at processing plants is encouraging, but more attention must be paid to the needs of international farm workers.

Despite the federal government failing to adopt more assertive measures dictating when these essential workers will receive their shots, many provinces are starting to report COVID-19 vaccinations are being delivered to them.

Ottawa had previously listed guidelines for administering the shot, suggesting people “contributing to the maintenance of other essential services for the functioning of society” should get the shot after high-risk individuals and the elderly.

Reports of vaccines being delivered to workers in processing plants and on agricultural operations continue to trickle in, prompting advocates to raise awareness of the special considerations people who are in Canada temporarily may need.

The Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group reached out to public health units presiding over Ontario’s farming communities.

Formed to protect international workers throughout the pandemic, the group says not all workers are receiving the information they need before getting a vaccine.

“The power imbalance between employers and migrant workers in Ontario agriculture presents unique challenges to obtaining informed consent,” they say.

They contend workers receiving the shot should be given advanced notice, and those who don’t want a shot should be guaranteed they won’t face repercussions from employers.

Before workers receive a shot, they should be able to consult a health professional and get language assistance.

These are fairly reasonable, and common sense, requests.

Being in a foreign country where you have limited language skills is hard enough. Trust me, I drove a van around South America with elementary-level Spanish.

Being in that position during a global pandemic, and having to do gruelling work, adds a level of difficulty.

As much as possible, health authorities should follow this advice from the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group. Employers should do their best to be accommodating, too.

A little less than 10 percent of the roughly 20,000 temporary foreign workers who came to Ontario last year tested positive for COVID-19. It is imperative that these workers are kept safe.

But beyond that, health authorities must ensure workers in processing plants and on farms feel comfortable about the health care they are receiving.

Canada’s ability to attract international workers has to at least be partially tied to how we treat those workers when they arrive here.

If we intend to rely on international labourers, then we should ensure that health authorities across the country are taking note of the messages coming from the migrant worker advocacy group.

It’s also worthwhile for the federal government to pay attention.

Considering the ongoing fiasco of temporary foreign workers and testing, federal officials may benefit from seeing what advocates have to say.

The private company hired by Ottawa to oversee the mandatory, day-10 COVID-19 tests for temporary foreign workers has been unable to keep up with demand. The problem is particularly troublesome for Quebec producers.

“Francophone farmers are wasting days trying to get service from (an) anglophone company that cannot keep up with demand,” said Bloc Quebecois MP Yves Perron during question period in the House of Commons. “Some workers are being forced to remain in quarantine for up to 25 days before they get their results.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, presumably recognizing the significant role farmers and international workers play in Canada, took it upon himself to answer the question.

“We recognize that there are challenges regarding temporary workers, testing and vaccination,” he said. “We will continue to work with Quebec and the relevant organizations to ensure that we overcome these challenges, and we will always be there to keep supporting our farmers and the essential work that they do.”

Here’s to hope.

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

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