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Ontario, feds team for more farm inspections

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TORONTO — Farms that employ migrant workers in Ontario will face expanded inspections starting this week, Premier Doug Ford said Monday as both he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at further action against farmers not following safety rules.

The promises from two of the country’s top political leaders came a day after a third migrant worker in Ontario died of COVID-19. Hundreds of the workers across the province have tested positive for the virus.

Ford, who last week pleaded with farmers to bring their workers to get tested, repeated the appeal Monday - this time singling out some farmers in Windsor-Essex who he said “brushed off” his first request.

“We’ll give it another shot,” Ford said. “I’ll go to the extreme, whatever tool I have, to protect the people of Windsor, and the food supply chain, and the farmers, and the workers.”

Ontario will begin increased inspections this week in partnership with the federal government.

“We are stepping up our efforts to work with the agricultural community to help them adjust to the new realities where temporary foreign workers are working and living very closely together,” Monte McNaughton said. “The consequences are serious.”

Migrant worker advocates have said the cramped “bunkhouses” migrant workers share on farms have contributed to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and they have called on the province to include those spaces in workplace spot checks.

Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses - many of them from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. This year, they were required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

Ford’s announcement came just hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had strong words for some farmers he said were not following strict federal rules designed to protect workers.

“Anyone doing work, let alone essential work as part of our food chain, needs to feel protected,” Trudeau said. “Obviously, in the case of these three tragic deaths, that wasn’t the case. We are ensuring that changes are made and that there will be consequences.”

The province has struggled to contain the outbreaks in the Windsor-Essex and Haldimand-Norfolk regions, where dozens of workers have been exposed to the virus.

Last week, a testing centre set up in Leamington, Ont., to test the Windsor-Essex region’s 8,000 workers was shuttered after it tested roughly 10 per cent of the population in just over a week in operation.

Hospital officials said the operation was an inefficient use of resources.

Ford said Monday the province will send mobile testing units to farms to alleviate some of the fears farmers and workers have of testing, but he again appealed for co-operation.

“I’m going to tell it the way it is, farmers just aren’t co-operating,” he said. “They aren’t sending out the people to get tested. We’ve got to bang our heads off the wall and figure out why. It’s good for the farmers, good for your workers, good for the food supply chain on safety.”

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said Monday that 31 of the region’s 32 new cases come from the agricultural sector.

Two migrant workers have died in the region due to COVID. The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit is now reporting that a migrant worker died amid a farm outbreak there.

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