In fall 2020, Damion, a Jamaican worker who picked tomatoes at a greenhouse in southern Ontario, broke out in an itchy rash. Then his skin peeled off.
He was working for Lakeside Produce, which grows vegetables in the farming town of Leamington, Ont. The company is owned by Chris Cervini, who took it over from his father. Lakeside also runs greenhouses in Michigan and Texas, and is expanding into North Carolina.
That fall, Lakeside had dusted the inside of two greenhouses with a thick layer of hydrated lime powder, which is used to suppress the growth of bacteria. Workers say the powder filled the air, burning their eyes, lungs and skin. It contaminated their food in the lunchroom. They couldn’t escape it.
Damion, who didn’t want his last name published, said the chemical lightened his skin. Another worker saw Damion’s skin peel off “like when a lizard is changing its skin.” Damion went to a doctor and received pills to stop the itching.
Sudeshna Nambiar, Lakeside’s chief operating officer, told The Narwhal in a letter that dolomitic hydrated lime has been used “for generations” in agriculture to “control PH levels,” and that it was misused “for a very brief period due to new management.” She said the company removed the powder within 24 hours.
But multiple current or former Lakeside workers told The Narwhal that the powder was only removed after they went on strike, a drastic action caused by general mistreatment by their employer during the pandemic, with the chemical and its effects being the final straw. Nambiar denies that a “work stoppage” took place.
Photos from workers show warning labels on bags of Dolomitic Hydrated Lime that read: “Danger: causes serious eye damage. Causes skin irritation. May cause cancer if inhaled. May cause respiratory irritation. Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.” The labels state that those exposed to the chemical should wear gloves and eye or face protection, but a worker said Lakeside only gave them a thin disposable mask and told them to wash and wear it again. The company did not respond when asked if these allegations were true.
Greenhouses like Lakeside’s are huge agricultural operations that rely on migrant workers to produce vegetables that are sometimes eaten by Canadians, but largely headed for export. People like Damion keep the food supply flowing, brought here on visas that are tied to specific employers, which creates a constant fear of being sent home for complaining. Because of this, migrant farmworkers often endure dangerous conditions, with poor access to healthcare and little government oversight. And when COVID-19 brought sickness, panic and lockdowns, a bad situation only became worse.
While private companies don’t have legal authority to order workers to quarantine, some migrant workers who spoke to The Narwhal alleged that they were singled out at Ontario farms and ordered to observe lockdowns that did not apply to Canadian workers. The federal government, through Employment and Social Development Canada, is responsible for inspecting housing and quarantine accommodations, but through spring and summer 2020, inspectors failed to visit in person, relying largely on photos sent by employers.
Last year, 2,089 migrant farmworkers in Ontario caught COVID-19 and three died. As of October, 1,102 more have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2021, and five have died. Between March 2020 and August 2021, Ontario’s agricultural sector was the subject of 183 COVID-19-related complaints (for example, employers not providing PPE) to the province’s Labour Ministry, although it’s important to note that the data isn’t perfect, since some workplaces are counted twice, under different names.
Just one Ontario farm is facing COVID-19-related labour charges. As The Toronto Star reported in September, Scotlynn Growers in Norfolk County is facing 20 charges, including a failure to isolate workers with symptoms and a failure to follow masking and other safety protocols. About 200 Scotlynn workers contracted the virus, and one, 55-year-old Jan Lopez Chaparro, died.
Though COVID-19 numbers on farms are down from last year and vaccines are available — as of October 2021, 84 per cent of migrant farmworkers had received one dose and 76 per cent had received two — ongoing concerns about labour rights, systemic racism and Canada’s immigration system remain.
In early December, the federal auditor general released a report examining how well Employment and Social Development Canada had protected seasonal agricultural workers’ health and safety during the pandemic, with a focus on adequate quarantine accommodations.
In 57 grim pages, it details how inadequate inspections and bureaucratic backlog resulted in magnifying workers’ already considerable vulnerability. “In total, we found problems in about 73 per cent of the quarantine inspections we reviewed,” it states, detailing problems such as delayed follow-up after outbreaks, inadequate effort put into speaking with workers directly, and a lack of evidence to justify some employers being found compliant with COVID protection requirements.
And although the federal government made a mid-2020 commitment of $16.2 million towards agricultural inspections, the quality of inspections in 2021 was actually worse than when COVID-19 first landed in 2020.
“That’s why I tell you they care about their plants and not us,” says former Lakeside Produce employee Shawn Cotter, a 28-year-old from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.
In 2017, Cotter arrived in Ontario under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which grants visas based on temporary contracts with a certain employer. As with the other Caribbean workers, if Cotter had a problem with Lakeside, he couldn’t look for a job at a different company. If he complained, the company could easily send him home. “It’s like you’re in prison,” he says. He worked on temporary contracts for months or years at a time. The year that the pandemic started, he was sharing a bunkhouse — migrant worker housing provided by employers — with 23 other people.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread, the Canadian government asked anyone entering the country to isolate for 14 days. As hundreds of workers arrived in Canada from abroad, Lakeside struggled to find space for them to isolate. According to federal inspection reports obtained through a freedom of information request and confirmed by a video that The Narwhal saw on social media, the company converted a warehouse into quarantine accommodations: workers slept on thin mattresses atop wooden palettes and there were no barriers between the beds.
Nambiar said Lakeside advised workers to remain in their bunkhouses “to help curb the potential spread of COVID-19 and obey government guidelines.” She also wrote that Lakeside tried to make this easier by arranging grocery deliveries and on-site money transfer services for those who wanted to send money home. Despite these precautions, COVID-19 struck Lakeside workers in May 2020.
Isolation and fear of illness were already wearing on workers when Lakeside began using the harsh lime powder. In late August, someone anonymously complained to the Ministry of Labour about the powder Lakeside used on its vegetables, the same chemical Damion blames for his rashes and peeling skin. Workers had hit a breaking point.
One late September morning, workers walked out of their bunkhouses and across the parking lot to the front door of the greenhouse. But unlike every other day, they refused to go in, until management removed the powder. Cotter, who had never gone on strike before, estimates 60 workers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Guatemala and Mexico took part. While he didn’t personally suffer side effects from the powder, he was frustrated with how the company had treated him during the pandemic and he wanted to support his fellow workers.
“I wasn’t afraid, I had the power in me — yes, yes, yes, strike, strike, strike!” he says.
Cotter says work stoppage lasted two hours, concluding when farm owner Chris Cervini arrived and agreed to remove the chemical. But Cotter says that while the company did sweep the powder up and powerwash the greenhouses, it began using the same chemical from a different bag only months later. Ontario workers are legally allowed to refuse work if they feel they’re in danger, but Cotter says they were afraid to walk off the job again, as there are no job protections for migrant farmworkers who want to collectively bargain.
Ministry of Labour reports also include complaints about the lime powder, and what inspectors found when they finally visited Lakeside: although the ministry received an anonymous complaint about chemicals in late August, there is no record of inspectors visiting the farm until December.
“Some workers got sick with different rashes and needed to visit the doctor,” the report reads, detailing complaints. “Workers experienced discriminations of all forms and an unhealthy work environment and [are] afraid to speak out because of losing their jobs like many others who did get fired.”
Lakeside, for its part, framed what Cotter called a strike as a “group meeting” and told the ministry that “no work refusal had taken place.” The ministry issued one requirement, asking the company to hand over documents related to chemicals it used. There are also records of another Labour Ministry inspection in February 2021, after another complaint about the use of lime powder.
Cotter suspects that some workers didn’t have their contracts renewed because of the strike. Another worker who spoke to The Narwhal over WhatsApp from St. Lucia believes that’s why he personally wasn’t brought back this year.
When asked if workers were punished for speaking out, Lakeside didn’t answer the question.
The farming town of Leamington is a handful of city blocks at the nexus of long stretches of highway that branch out across flat, green fields. The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation say they ceded this as part of a total of three million acres of land between Lakes Huron, Ontario and Erie to the Crown in 1784, in exchange for trade goods worth £1,180 at the time (about $300,000 today) in the Between the Lakes Treaty. Today, the land is filled with corn fields, vineyards and orchards of peaches and apples.
Tall wind turbines pierce the horizon and 18-wheel trucks hum down the highways past hundreds of reflective, mirror-like greenhouses containing rows of leafy plants. It would take a worker an entire 15-minute break to walk the length of a greenhouse and back.
Next to the greenhouses sit bunkhouses that appear tiny in comparison. Each sleeps dozens of workers from Latin American and Caribbean nations. These are the people who grow, pick and package the massive volumes of produce that Canadians and Americans buy at grocery stores.
“We have a highly concentrated system of profits and corporate control, so whether it’s migrant workers or farmers or consumers, we are cogs in the wheel,” she says. “And it’s not a kind system. It is all geared toward profit.”
The majority of fruits and vegetables found in Toronto grocery stores are picked in countries like the U.S. and Mexico, transported through an opaque supply chain, and labelled unclearly. (The U.S. also employs migrant workers under a similar system of precarious visas and undocumented labour.) When Toronto shoppers find local produce at chain grocery stores, it is often from greenhouses in southern Ontario the size of Amazon warehouses, including Lakeside.
Freshco in downtown Toronto, for example, stocks tomatoes from Lakeside Produce, according to former Lakeside workers who identified the company’s logo on boxes in the store. There’s no way for grocery shoppers to know that these tomatoes were picked by workers who experienced COVID outbreaks, and who risked their precarious contracts to go on strike against the company’s use of lime powder. (Freshco’s parent company, Sobeys, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Costco in Michigan carries mushrooms from Ontario-based Highline Produce, which calls itself the largest mushroom grower in Canada. Again, fungi fans have no easy way to connect their groceries to Highline workers who experienced multiple COVID-19 outbreaks and complained to the Ministry of Labour about unsanitary conditions, lack of distancing and PPE, and employees coming into work sick. (Costco did not respond to requests for comment.)
One Highline worker tells The Narwhal that he contracted COVID-19 in cramped employer-provided housing, and that in June 2020 he and his coworkers didn’t disclose their symptoms because they needed money to send home to their families. “The farm never offered us money to stay home if we felt sick,” he said.
Highline CEO and President Aaron Hamer says the company told workers early in the pandemic to stay home if they felt sick, and that disciplinary letters were sent to workers who came to work with symptoms or didn’t wear masks. Highline doesn’t have paid sick leave, but the company helps COVID-positive workers to apply for compensation through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. They are also assisted in applying for federal payments — currently, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which replaced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) — if they test negative, but need to quarantine after exposure.
“Are there things from time to time with 2,300 workers that don’t go perfect, of course,” Hamer tells The Narwhal. “If we find them, do we fix them? Absolutely.”
Hamer says Highline spent “an incredible amount of money” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including educating workers about how to protect themselves, initiating a mask policy before the government mandate, building outdoor tents for workers to distance at lunch and setting up an “ethics hotline” for reporting unsafe, discriminatory or illegal behaviour. He says the farm was inspected by the Ministry of the Labour and there were no orders issued for not following COVID-19 procedures.
Even as they market produce as “family grown” or “local,” farms in Ontario are highly reliant on migrant workers: in 2020, it was the province with the most foreign workers employed on farms, followed by Quebec and B.C. Between 50,000 and 60,000 agricultural workers come to Canada each year, usually through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The program started in the 1960s when Canadian farms were unable to find local workers willing to do manual labour for low pay. The first workers were from Jamaica, and the program later expanded to include Mexico and other Caribbean nations.
At the same time, globalized trade and natural disasters put pressure on people in countries like St. Lucia to leave their homes to make a living. Cotter’s father was a banana farmer, a legacy he hoped to continue before the island’s agricultural industry deflated. St. Lucia’s banana industry thrived from the 1960s to the 1990s thanks to a preferential trade deal with the United Kingdom, before European Union partners complained and the U.K. changed the agreement, ending Caribbean dominance.
Climate change is contributing to more frequent and fierce storms in the Caribbean and a 2010 hurricane dealt another blow to banana crops. Younger generations from farming families don’t have the same options for stable employment.
Canada’s visas for seasonal farm workers offer them the chance to support their families, if they are willing to live away from their loved ones for long chunks of time.
A 10-minute drive north of Leamington is a new, gargantuan greenhouse with the word “Lakeside” above the front door. There’s also a row of recently constructed bunkhouses with bike racks in front. With few transportation options to get to grocery stores and banks in downtown Leamington, workers bike there on gravel highway shoulders, as tractor trailers roar by.
Although the Lakeside bunkhouses are fairly new, the company still chose a design that packs workers in cramped conditions, as is tradition for farms in this region. A total of 144 workers live here, with 24 workers in each unit. This is where Cotter used to live, and where he participated in the strike.
Bunkhouse conditions are not consistent across the country; provinces set housing standards, and in some cases they pass that duty along to municipalities. Stepping inside one of the Lakeside bunkhouses, The Narwhal found it was impossible for workers to maintain distance; there was virtually no private space available.
“Lakeside Produce is very proud to say that our bunkhouses go above and beyond the requirements of the Public Health Unit, Fire Department and other municipality guidelines. We also comply with Service Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada department,” wrote Nambiar, Lakeside’s chief operating officer, in her letter.
On Sundays, the Caribbean men in the bunkhouse have the day off. During The Narwhal’s morning visit, most are relaxing in their beds after a long week. Each dorm has eight beds. Blankets hang from the bunks in an attempt to gain privacy. In one dorm, reggae plays quietly from a top bunk. A man snores softly. Another man chats on the phone. The space is crowded but clean; it smells of laundry detergent and baby powder. Luggage lines the floor by the walls.
In the kitchen, pots and pans clink together and the scent of sweet spices fills the air. A man who prefers not to be named is cooking his mother’s jerk chicken on one of 10 burners. He used to be a chef at a restaurant in Jamaica.
Oil sizzles as he sautées onions and red and yellow peppers. Workers keep their groceries in lockers, freezers and a walk-in fridge. The cook says that when he buys peppers, he thinks about the chemicals that are probably sprayed on them, likely the chemicals he has experienced first hand.
Workers eat at four communal tables. There are no couches or soft chairs. Two dozen people share a small bathroom with three toilet stalls and four shower stalls. Workers say this bunkhouse did not have a COVID-19 outbreak, but other Lakeside bunkhouses did.
Responsibility for ensuring migrant farm workers are being treated and housed decently is divided among government departments and agencies at the federal, provincial and municipal level. At the federal level, Employment and Social Development Canada is the agency tasked with ensuring employers comply with rules for migrant worker housing by inspecting bunkhouses. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada oversees the visa process for the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program: in 2019, it created an open work permit that allows migrant workers who can prove their current employer is abusive to find a different employer.
Provincial ministries of labour are responsible for enforcing health and safety laws, investigating complaints and initiating workplace inspections. If a worker thinks their employer violated provincial laws, they can take their case to the labour relations board in hopes of a settlement. Since the pandemic began, the Ontario Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has committed $36 million to bolster the sector’s enforcement of worker health and safety.
These were the checks and balances in place when COVID-19 tore through Ontario farms and bunkhouses.
But in spring 2020, Employment Canada halted in-person inspections, instead asking employers to send photos to prove they were following the rules—a practice the auditor general’s office specifically criticized as inadequate in its December report.
Through a freedom of information request, The Narwhal obtained federal Employment Canada inspection reports of quarantine accommodations for migrant workers employed at a dozen Ontario companies, including Lakeside, during the early months of the pandemic, from March to July 2020.
The reports included photos of quarantine accommodations that show cramped conditions, with several bunk beds to a room and shared bathrooms and kitchens. One report includes an April 2020 photo showing two migrant workers inside a southern Ontario bunkhouse holding a measuring tape between them, as proof they were staying the government-mandated two metres apart.
The department told The Narwhal virtual inspections were meant to protect workers, employers and investigators. Reports show that every Ontario farm inspected by Employment Canada from March to July 2020 was found in compliance with the Quarantine and Emergencies Act, as well as COVID-19 provincial law governing public health and migrant worker quarantine accommodations.
Employment Canada also posts a list of non-compliant employers across the country on its website. From February 18, 2020, to July 28, 2020, not one business in all of Canada — from farms to restaurants to construction companies — is noted as having violated any of the department’s regulations about treatment of temporary foreign workers.
That includes Lakeside Produce, which passed an inspection that happened in May 2020, after an outbreak. Employment Canada did a virtual review of Lakeside’s quarantine accommodations using photos of workers in a warehouse, on thin mattresses on wooden pallets, no barriers between them. Inspectors did not interview any workers.
The Narwhal asked Employment Canada about the Lakeside warehouse and why the government considered measuring tape a good method for assessing whether workers were safe from COVID-19 indoors. The department replied via email that it doesn’t disclose information about its compliance activities. It also noted that it restarted in-person inspections of migrant worker accommodations in late summer 2020, and is working on strengthening its inspections and tip line for worker complaints.
When The Narwhal posed similar questions about inspections to Immigration Canada, a ministry spokesperson responded by email that “there are stiff penalties for employers who do not comply,” adding that non-compliant employers can be banned from the seasonal workers program, or face up to $1 million in fines.
As early as spring 2020, scientific evidence suggested COVID-19 could spread through the air, especially indoors. Employment Canada inspection reports don’t mention ventilation, and the department told The Narwhal that ventilation is a provincial matter. In June 2021, after the sixth recorded COVID-19 death of a migrant farmworker in Ontario, the provincial Ministry of Labour told the Toronto Star it was updating its guide for on-farm outbreak management to include ventilation. But the guide from September 2020 is still the only one on the ministry’s site, and doesn’t mention ventilation. The Narwhal asked the provincial ministry if it had updated its guide to include ventilation and didn’t receive an answer.
The Narwhal examined worker complaints to the Ministry of Labour and found that, after the May 2020 outbreak, workers said Lakeside wasn’t following pandemic protocols. The Narwhal also obtained ministry inspection reports detailing worker complaints about the lime powder, and what inspectors found when they finally visited.
Another field report states that inspectors returned to Lakeside, which is also called Cervini Farms, in February 2021, in response to another complaint about exposure to lime powder, which former Lakeside worker Cotter told The Narwhal was put back into use not long after the brief strike.
“The dust is all over the workplace and close to food quarters. Workers have reported burning eyes, sore throats, skin rashes and chest pain,” the report reads, describing the complaint. Company representatives told inspectors the powder had been discontinued and cleaned up weeks earlier, that workers were provided eye, skin and respiratory protection, and that Lakeside was not aware of any worker injuries or complications from the lime powder.
Inspectors didn’t see any lime powder, but the report notes that they did see workers without masks, and found that although health and safety meetings are mandated every three months, Lakeside hadn’t held one in the six months prior.
That time, the ministry issued three orders to Lakeside: take precautions to protect workers from COVID-19; hold health and safety meetings every three months; and send the ministry the names of the workers who handled the lime powder. Nambiar said Service Canada, the Ministry of Labour and public health all investigated the company’s use of lime and found the farm had taken proper steps to correct its mistake.
The Narwhal asked the provincial Labour Ministry what steps were taken to investigate and enforce these orders at Lakeside, and did not receive an answer. “In 2020, 98 per cent of farms reported no cases of COVID after a proactive inspection, demonstrating the ministry’s approach to enforcement on farms is working,” a Ministry of Labour spokesperson emailed. When asked about worker reports of illegal lockdowns, Ontario’s Labour Ministry said such complaints are forwarded to local police or Employment Canada.
“It’s horrendous, horrific, and shows the stark concern that we’ve been raising for two decades with regard to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and migrant farmworkers’ living and working conditions here in Canada,” says Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia For Migrant Workers, about federal and provincial oversight of workers during COVID-19.
He shares a video he made while grocery shopping, showing bags of apples and carrots marked “Product of Canada” decorated with photos of white male farmers. “Three generations of Canadian farmers but no migrant workers,” says Ramsaroop about these marketing images. “At the same time we see the myth of the family farm, we see the erasure of the racialized labour that goes into the production of our food system.”
Ramsaroop called it “inexcusable” for Lakeside to provide such miserable accommodations. “These companies are highly resourced and wealthy,” he says. He believes the focus on exports is a prime cause because farms want their price points to compete internationally.
Ramsaroop is not surprised to hear that farms passed federal inspection without in-person visits. Even when federal inspectors do interview workers, he says, their bosses are often within earshot, so workers feel pressure to say everything is fine. He called both governments “negligent” in their responsibilities to migrant workers.
“There is an absence of any form of transparency, accountability or oversight of the [seasonal workers] program,” he says. This dates back to Canada’s beginnings and colonization: Ramsaroop sees the structural power imbalance coded into the seasonal worker program as a continuation of the indentured labour system that flourished after the end of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean.
He adds that this doesn’t mean that people like Cotter should not come to Canada to work — but that when they do come, they should have full protections under the law like everyone else.
Advocacy groups have been saying for decades that Canada should give migrant workers permanent residency on arrival so they can stand up for their rights and access healthcare. The Narwhal asked Immigration Canada if it had considered taking this step, but the department instead pointed to various pathways to permanent residency, all of which can take years.
Immigration Canada did recently update the rules for obtaining open permits to include abuse related to COVID-19. And, along with Employment Canada, the department is currently proposing changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which includes seasonal agricultural workers and others, such as domestic caregivers, who also come on temporary visas tied to their employers. These changes include informing workers of their employment rights and including employer reprisal — or punishing workers for exercising their rights — in the definition of abuse. It all sounds promising, but as noted in the auditor general’s recent report, Employment Canada hasn’t lived up to its “repeated commitments over the years to improve workers’ living conditions,” which doesn’t bode well for the department’s future commitment to new, COVID era responsibilities.
In the 2021 budget, the Canadian government committed $110 million to increase workplace inspections, support migrant worker services and “improve open work permits.” It also said it is working to improve co-ordination between federal and provincial agencies responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces with migrant workers.
In May 2021, Cotter obtained an open permit and left Lakeside. Ramsaroop says this isn’t a permanent solution: open permits allow workers to stay in Canada for only one year, but by the end of this time they must find a new employer to be attached to their visa.
But Cotter is optimistic. “I feel free now, the breeze can blow me anywhere, I will be fine,” he says. He says the treatment he endured from his employer opened him up instead of shutting him down. “Through the pandemic, I know a lot of my rights now — it’s like a blessing.”
Updated Jan. 6, 2022, at 1:43 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct a line that misidentified a substance that was improperly used in two greenhouses. The article quoted a company official who explained how dolomitic hydrated lime powder was used incorrectly for a very brief period. The article also quoted workers who said they suffered adverse health effects after the powder was used. The article incorrectly referred to this substance as limestone powder. Bags of limestone powder were photographed by workers, but it was rather the spread of dolomitic hydrated lime (also photographed, and published in this story) that workers said led to a burning sensation in their eyes, lungs and skin. Limestone powder, or calcium carbonate, is largely benign though can have adverse health effects after long-term exposure, but hydrated lime, or calcium hydroxide, is caustic.
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