Ontario farm fined $125K after pleading guilty in death of migrant worker from COVID

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Ontario farm fined $125K after pleading guilty in death of migrant worker from COVID's Profile


A Norfolk County farm, based in Vittoria, Ont., pleaded guilty to violating occupational health and safety laws after an outbreak of COVID-19 led to the death of a migrant worker in 2020.

Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers, one of Canada’s largest employers of migrant farmworkers, pleaded guilty to one count of failing to take reasonable precautions to protect employees and agreed to pay a $125,000 fine plus a 25 per cent surcharge.

Read more:

Advocates call for stronger migrant workers rights amid deaths on the job in Canada

“Scotlynn is a multi-million-dollar, multi-national corporation, and these fines are just the cost of doing business to them,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. “Canada needs to give migrants equal rights so that they can protect themselves through permanent resident status.”

This is the first COVID-related prosecution of an employer under occupational health and safety laws in the province.

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“While Scotlynn gets a slap on the wrist, these kinds of exploitative working conditions remain common across the country because migrants can only come to Canada with precarious and vulnerable immigration status,” Hussan said.

Over 200 workers tested positive during a spring 2020 outbreak at the farm. One worker from Mexico, Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55, died that June.

The farm faced 27 charges under the Reopening Ontario Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Seven were laid in April 2021 and the other 20 were added in September 2021 after an inspection was done by the provincial Labour Ministry.

The new charges were split between Scotlynn Farms and owner Scott Biddle.

Global News reached out to Biddle and Scotlynn Farms for comment but did not receive a reply prior to publication.

At the time of the outbreak, Scotlynn workers were living in bunkhouses that housed up to 50 people “working in crowded and unsanitary conditions,” Hussan said.

According to the agreed statement of facts provided by the Ministry of Labour, “the deceased worker had been bedridden for several days in the bunkhouse he lived in. He had symptoms of COVID-19 but was not isolated.”

Furthermore, the statement of facts said that the employer did not consistently enforce COVID-19 screening and some workers failed to report identifiable symptoms of the virus to management.

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Read more:

Hundreds of migrant farm workers in Ontario denied fresh air during quarantine

Another migrant farmworker, Gabriel Flores, was fired after speaking out about conditions on the farm. Flores later won $25,000 for lost wages and reprisals.

“There is no real protection for most migrant farmworkers,” Hussan said.

“In Ontario, they are excluded from basic provincial labour laws including minimum wage, limits on hours of work, rest periods, time off between shifts, overtime pay, weekly/bi-weekly rest periods, and public holidays. Their temporary, precarious status makes them vulnerable to abusive conditions and reprisals from employers.”

After speaking up against Scotlynn Farms, Flores was able to secure a one-time vulnerable worker open work permit. However, he was unable to renew his permit and was forced to return home to Mexico.

“After everything we did, everything remains the same,” Flores said. “Without permanent residency, we still have no options to protect our families. Now I can no longer return to Canada. For the employer nothing has changed, he can continue to exploit the workers. This ‘justice’ is just a show.”

Scotlynn Farms’ $125,000 fine will go to the municipality, according to Hussan.

“But Juan’s family, Gabriel and other workers will receive no reparations; there is no justice done here,” Hussan said.

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The federal government promised to enact new requirements for agricultural producers including properly protecting migrant workers from COVID-19.

However, in December 2021, Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, found “significant shortcomings” in 73 per cent of federal quarantine inspections reports filed in 2020, and 88 per cent of federal inspections in 2021.

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change said it has confirmed six migrant worker deaths related to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. But the group suspects that the number is likely higher.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.





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