Ontario farm fined $125,000 after pleading guilty to death of migrant worker from COVID

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

Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers, one of Canada’s largest employers of migrant farm workers, 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% surcharge.

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

This is the first COVID-related lawsuit against 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, as migrants can only come to Canada with precarious and vulnerable immigration status,” said Husan.

More than 200 workers tested positive during a spring 2020 outbreak at the farm. A Mexican worker, Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55, died in June.

The farm has faced 27 charges under Ontario’s Reopening Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act. Seven were laid in April 2021 and the other 20 were added in September 2021 after an inspection by the provincial Department of Labor.

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

Global News contacted Biddle and Scotlynn Farms for comment, but did not receive a response before publication.

At the time of the outbreak, workers at Scotlynn were living in dormitories for up to 50 people “working in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions”, Hussan said.

According to the Agreed Statement of Facts provided by the Department of Labor, “The deceased worker had been bedridden for several days in the dormitory where he lived. He had symptoms of COVID-19 but was not isolated.”

In addition, the statement of facts indicated that the employer did not consistently enforce COVID-19 testing and that some workers failed to report identifiable symptoms of the virus to management.

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Another migrant farm worker, Gabriel Flores, was fired after speaking out about conditions at the farm. Flores was later awarded $25,000 for lost wages and retaliation.

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

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

After reporting Scotlynn Farms, Flores was able to secure a one-time open work permit for vulnerable workers. However, he was unable to renew his license and was forced to return home to Mexico.

“After everything we’ve done, everything stays the same,” Flores said. “Without permanent residency, we still have no option 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 only a spectacle.

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

“But the family of Juan, Gabriel and the other workers will not receive any reparations; there is no justice done here,” Hussan said.

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

However, in December 2021, Karen Hogan, the Auditor General of Canada, found “significant deficiencies” in 73% of federal quarantine inspection reports filed in 2020 and 88% of federal inspections in 2021.

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

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

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