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County Council turns down’s Essex’s motion regarding spread of COVID in ag-sector

by Sylene Argent

At the virtual Essex County Council meeting held last Wednesday evening, the motion the Town of Essex passed, then forwarded to County Council for support, regarding COVID-19 and farm workers, was turned down.

  At the June 15 regular meeting, Essex Council passed the motion that it requests urgent and emergency action to be taken by all levels of government in order to support all local farm workers, including migrant workers, as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic; and that the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs come together immediately to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the farm worker population. The health and welfare of farm workers is vital to our community and to the opening up our local economy.

  During the County Council meeting, Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche said this motion came about from frustration in being left behind in phase-one of the reopening plan through the Coronavirus pandemic. He said it is a critical time. Mayor Larry Snively said the Town of Essex would also like to see the numbers of positive cases from town to town.

  Snively added he feels sorry for Leamington as it is suffering. He said there has got to be a way to stop it. He mentioned mandatory testing.

  Essex County Warden, Gary McNamara, said it is a tough situation on mandatory testing as there is a Charter of Rights in Canada that does not allow for this. What has created a lot of issues, he added, is misinformation. He said everyone has to stand behind communities noticing an influx in COVID-19 cases, and a solution needs to be found.

  Farms, McNamara added, are an essential service.

  “We’re under the gun to find a solution,” McNamara said, which will only be achieved, “by putting our collective heads together.” He said finger pointing and the blame game need to stop.

He said better communication plans need to be developed through the Consulate for the migrant workers.  

  Snively said he agrees with what McNamara said, adding all decision-makers are being bashed on the issue. He believes the greenhouse operation owners need to be educated. He said it is a shame when testing facilities are set up for farm workers and there is a low uptake.

  Lakeshore Mayor Tom Bain said a lot of the discussion sounds as if nothing is being done. He said there are virtual meetings nearly every day with health and hospital officials and decision-makers from all levels of government. He said, as a result, there are a lot of ideas and thoughts presented. He encouraged all mayors to be at these meetings to give input.

  Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said it is a tough time. She said the issue is not just with migrant workers, but agricultural workers. Recruits are being brought in from Windsor to work as well. Mandatory testing is a controversial topic. She was hoping it could be done in some way, like taking temperatures. She said it is known migrant workers live in close quarters.

  As far as the testing centres go, MacDonald said the migrant workers were afraid to go offsite. In addition, if the greenhouse operations lose fifty percent of its workforce, “They’re up the creek,” she said.

  To MacDonald, McNamara said, “We’re behind you. When one [community] suffers, we all do.”

  Meloche said the Town of Essex’s motion was not meant to be disrespectful of migrant workers. He said Essex Council was looking to protect all. He said, though hearing the discussions during the meeting, that is sounded like a lot is going on in regards to the situation.   

Last Friday afternoon, the Windsor Essex County Health Unit hosted its Board of Health meeting for June virtually.

  During the meeting, Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, said right now there are challenges in the ag-sector as it relates to COVID-19. The rest of the cases are significantly down. As of last Friday, there were active cases of COVID-19 across eight farms. There had also been two deaths.

  He said many were tested through outreach, onsite at the farms. Public Health staff arranged the testing.

  The challenge, Dr. Ahmed said, is that many of the ag workers are not self-isolating. Windsor opened Hotel Dieu for those in need of housing.

  Dr. Ahmed also noted it has been made clear from public health officials that when they are treating undocumented workers, they are not immigration. Undocumented workers are treated as residents of Windsor-Essex. He said he has heard discussion on there needing to be clear messaging from various levels of government about amnesty to get everyone tested. The WECHU has not come across many undocumented workers, he noted.

  Essex County Warden Gary McNamara said the migrant workers were isolated for 14 days when they arrived in Canada. He asked how confidence can be created in that particular industry. He said it has to be known migrant workers are guests in this country.

  “We are dependent on you here to make sure our food supply and food safety is maintained. We got to give them that confidence we are here to help them,” McNamara said.   

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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