In the News June 13
Court Ruling in Death of Migrant Farm Worker in Ontario
Shady Deals to Perpetuate Violation of Migrant Workers’ Rights
The Provincial Offences Court in Simcoe, Ontario imposed a fine of $125,000 on Scotlynn Growers on June 6 on one count of failing to take all reasonable precautions to protect its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under occupational health and safety laws the company could have been fined up to $1.5 million. To add insult to injury, the $125,000 fine will be paid to the municipality and not the family of Juan Lopez Chaparro, the migrant worker from Mexico who died of COVID-19 as a result of Scotlynn Growers irresponsibility, for whom clearly the government continues to refuse to take responsibility.
Scotlynn Growers pleaded guilty to a single charge despite the fact that the company was originally charged in September 2021 with 20 offences and another seven charges were subsequently added.
Aside from the one charge, the Ministry of Labour dropped all other charges against the company and its owner Scott Biddle in a plea agreement struck between the Ministry of Labour and the company.
Of the 220 migrant workers on the farm at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak in May 2020 that claimed the life of Juan Lopez Chaparro, 196 tested positive for the virus, many became ill and three were hospitalized. Workers lived communally, in close quarters, in bunkhouses that held up to 50 workers, and no measures were taken to isolate sick workers from others.
Among the Ministry of Labour’s responsibilities is the promotion and enforcement of employment standards, which means, among other things, the health and safety of all workers, including migrant workers. The Ministry bent over backwards to ensure that Scotlynn Growers was not held accountable, was not required to make reparations to the family of the worker who died, or to change the conditions in which migrant farm workers live and work.
The Hamilton Spectator reported that lawyers for the Ministry of Labour said in court that Scotlynn did not consistently implement or enforce COVID-19 screening and that temporary foreign workers “were particularly dependent on their employer’s compliance with the law.”
But the ministry’s lawyers “also took into account that Scotlynn was an essential workplace and, like many employers, was ‘grappling’ with how to adapt to the early stages of a global pandemic.” The judge agreed, saying “There really was no blueprint, no case study on how to do this in the early stages of the pandemic.”
Evidence from migrant workers and their advocates, and from audits conducted by the federal auditor general refutes this self-serving claim that in effect justifies negligence which, if it is not, should be a criminal offence.
Public health guidelines on social distancing, the need for isolation of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 and more were crystal clear in May 2020.
Scotlynn chose not to follow those guidelines and to compromise the health and well-being of its workers to ensure its profits. Claims that such issues are not personal and that companies have a commitment to their investors must be repudiated once and for all. They are both unconscionable and socially irresponsible. Enough is enough!
The court ruling shows how the state and its institutions, in this case the Ontario Ministry of Labour, openly collaborate with private interests at the expense of workers, who are seen as disposable. This is all the more true when it comes to migrant workers for whom the government must be made to take responsibility.
The Ministry of Labour and the entire government must be told in no uncertain terms that turning a blind eye to the intolerable working and living conditions of migrant workers will not pass.
Long before COVID-19, between 2016 and 2018, Mexican authorities received 33 complaints about Scotlynn from their nationals working at the farm — the most made about any one Canadian farm during that period. These complaints related to pest infestations, overcrowding, and failure to receive timely medical attention.
Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change denounced the fine as a “slap on the wrist” while “these kinds of exploitative working conditions remain common across the country because migrants can only come to Canada with precarious and vulnerable immigration status.”
The organization reiterated its call for status for all.
“The only way to establish fairness is to support equal rights for migrants by granting permanent residency so that they can defend themselves against abusive employers. Instead, Canada has made it easier for employers to hire more precarious, temporary migrants,” it noted.
Workers’ Forum, posted June 13, 2022.