Fr. Peter Ciallella presides at a memorial Mass for Juan Lopez Chaparro last year. Photo by Michael Swan

Inadequate housing for migrants cited in coroner report

By 
  • May 6, 2021

A coroner’s report into the COVID-19 deaths of three migrant farm workers last year has highlighted the role crowded, inadequate housing played in spreading the deadly virus on Ontario farms, plus a jumble of overlapping jurisdictions overseeing the living and working conditions of temporary foreign workers.

Deputy chief Ontario coroner Dr. Reuven R. Jhirad is recommending a further, formal inquest into the deaths of Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Munoz Santos and Juan Lopez Chaparro in May and June of last year.

Fr. Peter Ciallella, who presided at a memorial Mass for Lopez Chaparro at Blessed Sacrament Church in Burford, Ont., last year, is not surprised the coroner highlighted housing.

“So the federal government regulates the arrival of workers, but then when it comes to housing, that’s a provincial jurisdiction? They keep passing the ball,” Ciallella wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “I find it glaring that not one infraction has been reported.”

“There had been no employer penalized by the federal government for violation of provincial standards,” Jhirad wrote in his 30-page report released April 27.

The housing inspection system seems designed to avoid the real-life circumstances of workers on farms, said Ciallella.

“Yes, housing is inspected. But the inspection usually occurs prior to the arrival of the workers. So, of course the living quarters look pristine, up to code, etc. The true test is to see what they are like when the men actually occupy their residence,” said Ciallella.

The problem is not insurmountable, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change executive director Syed Hussan said.

“Improvement in migrant farmworkers’ living and working conditions will not mean increased costs for the consumer,” Hussan wrote in an e-mail. “Canada is the world’s fifth largest agri-food exporter and Canadian agri-food is heavily subsidized.”

Hassan wants the province to take on more responsibility.

“There are no national or provincial housing standards,” he said. “Each municipality or public health unit does something a little bit different. Ontario needs to ensure that migrant workers are covered under all provincial laws including but not limited to the Landlord-Tenant Act, labour laws, health care and access to education.”

Ultimately, the union-supported Migrant Workers Alliance wants the vast pool of migrant labour keeping Ontario’s food industry running to have access to permanent immigration status and be governed by the same labour laws that apply to all Ontario residents.

With a $163,000 grant from Service Canada and some administrative help from the ecumenical social justice organization Kairos, Ciallella and other Haldimand-Norfolk clergy and congregations have opened the Centre for Migrant Worker Solidarity in Simcoe, Ont. The Church-led centre replaces one that was run by the United Food and Commercial Workers union until 2017.

The centre gives workers a place to get to know one another, to access services and to learn how to navigate the system in Canada from housing complaints to vaccination clinics, Ciallella said.

Ciallella dedicates a lot of time to helping the men stay connected to their families in Mexico and Central America. Via phone this spring Ciallella has already conducted a prayer service with a worker who was grieving his mother, who died in Mexico after the worker arrived in Canada.

Now is the time to fix the system.

“Long term, we will face other viruses,” Ciallella said. “We need to address housing standards, not just as a preventative measure against potential spread, but for the quality of life for the workers in general.”

Despite a pilot program offering vaccines to temporary foreign workers as they arrive at Pearson International Airport beginning April 10, more than 700 migrant farm workers were already infected with COVID-19 by mid April. About 60,000 migrant labourers come to Canadian farms each year to keep the $68.8-billion sector up and running.

“The problems persist,” Ciallella said. “Let’s hope and pray the workers get the care and protection they deserve.”

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