Ontario investigating 17 temp agencies after virus outbreaks on farms

FILE PHOTO: A migrant worker wears a mask and practices social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while loading trays of onions at Mayfair Farms in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon VanRaes/File Photo

TORONTO/WINNIPEG (Reuters) - The Canadian province of Ontario is investigating 17 temporary recruitment agencies, the province’s labor ministry said, after health officials warned that agencies that move workers from farm to farm could be contributing to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Canadian farms rely on some 60,000 people who come to Canada on temporary work permits every year, typically living and working on one farm all season. But some also use temp agencies that employ locals, including undocumented workers.

“Worker safety laws on farms apply to all workers in Ontario. This includes migrant workers and undocumented workers,” the labor ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. “We stand firm against exploitation in our province.”

As of June 29, 21 outbreaks at farms and greenhouse operations had infected 954 people across Canada, according to federal data. Three workers have died, all in Ontario.

An “overwhelming majority” of farms with outbreaks were employing short-term workers through temp agencies, ministry of labor staff said on a conference call about the outbreaks last week.

Contract workers have been a critical part of the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors in Ontario for decades, but they now seem to be contributing to outbreaks, said Ken Forth, a broccoli farmer and president of FARMS, a nonprofit group that coordinates the federal temporary work program.

“It’s a confusing issue,” he said. “There’s no question that contract worker agencies like those are very important to the economy of Canada. If you take that away, God only knows what happens.”

Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Rock Nickel in Winnipeg; editing by Jonathan Oatis