In a pandemic first, southern Ontario farms where a massive COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a migrant worker and scores more sick are facing prosecution for alleged workplace safety violations.
Scott Biddle, a Scottish grower and proprietor, has been charged with 20 crimes that allegedly took place last year, when nearly 200 migrant workers tested positive for the virus.
Among them was 55-year-old Juan López Chaparro, who died of COVID-19 in June 2020 following an outbreak in Scotland. He left four children in Mexico as well as his widow, who he says there are “no words” to describe. lose him
“Juan was a tremendous man as a friend, brother, husband and father,” his wife Augustina Galindo Segundo told the Star from Mexico in response to an emailed question. “He never tried to cause trouble and will always do his best to help others.”
“We’ve tried to move on because he didn’t want us to be separated. But since he left us, everything has changed in our family.”
According to a list of charges obtained by the Star, Scotlin’s alleged breaches include failing to isolate workers with COVID symptoms, failing to follow masking and disinfection protocols, and failing to provide adequate information and training.
Labor Ministry spokesman Kalem McSween confirmed that this is an employer’s first COVID-related prosecution under occupational health and safety laws.
Biddle, who has been charged with 11 counts of alleged workplace safety violations as a “director and/or officer” of the farm, said he was currently working from the US office in Scottline and was aware of the matter. was not.
“I have no comment,” he said on Monday.
In an interview with the Star last year, shortly after the outbreak and Chaparro’s death, Biddle said his Norfolk County farm followed outbreak protocols, including providing adequate personal protective equipment and housing.
“These people, they are frontline workers, they are working there in the fields, providing food for all of us in Canada, and risking their lives. I mean, what happened to us is very unfortunate,” Biddle said at the time.
Critics say migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to long-standing inequalities and inaction. Without systemic change, including permanent immigration status, workers “will continue to get sick and injured, face threats of deportation and lose their lives,” said Karen Cock of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
Chaparro, who was from just outside Mexico City, spent several weeks in hospital battling the virus. He passed away shortly after celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary. After his death, his bunkmate Gabriel Flores was terminated for raising health and safety concerns about the outbreak in Scotland, forcing him to flee the farm with the help of a friend, most recently with a labor board. According to the decision.
The Labor Board found that the farm’s actions constituted a retaliation, and Scottlin was ordered to pay damages and lost wages to Flores.
Flores said he was glad the new charges would shed light on the circumstances surrounding Chapro’s death – including a lack of timely medical attention, poor living conditions and the way workers were treated.
But more action is needed, Flores said.
“The most important change will be to give full (immigration) status to workers immediately. This is the only way we will be able to leave bad jobs and demand the respect and equality we deserve.”
Court records show that health and safety charges were filed to date this month for alleged crimes committed at the time of Scotland’s outbreak between May and August last year.
In addition to the failure to isolate symptomatic workers and follow masking protocols, the farm “failed to take reasonable precautions to provide workers on the farm with proper access to hand hygiene facilities” or hand sanitizer, the allegations claim. Is.
A second set of charges against Scottlin and Biddle’s lapse of claims also occurred in October – several months after Chaparo’s death. Among those charges, Scottlin and Biddle have been accused of keeping parts of the business open contrary to lockdown rules, as well as allegedly failing to provide workers with masks when needed.
When factoring in a second set of charges, Scottlin and Biddle face 27 counts of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario Reopening Act. A Norfolk County spokesman said the cases are currently before provincial crime court.
It usually takes several months for a prosecution to begin under provincial workplace safety laws. Individuals can face up to one year in prison and fines of up to $100,000, while corporations face a maximum fine of up to $1.5 million per charge.
Maximum fines under pandemic emergency laws are up to $100,000 for individuals, with potential jail time, and up to $10 million for a corporation.
Scottlin’s, a million-dollar operation, describes itself as the “Farm Stand of North America” and also runs a transportation company with networks throughout the United States.
This is not the first time that reports of poor living and working conditions at the farm have come to the fore. As previously revealed by the Star, Mexican authorities received 33 complaints about Scotlin from migrant workers between 2016 and 2018 – the most about any single Canadian farm during that period. The complaint included allegations of insect infestation, overcrowding and failure to receive timely medical attention.
Earlier this year, Scottlin was fined $7,000 by the federal government for legal violations related to “hiring and recruiting employees,” according to a public database of non-compliant employers of temporary foreign workers.
Cocq said that despite that history, Scotlyn “continues to earn millions of benefits from the backs of migrant workers, which haven’t changed at all since last year’s outbreak and Juan’s death.”
“This proves that the system cannot work, because the laws it enforces deny migrants the power to claim their rights because of their temporary immigration status,” she said.
Chapro was one of three migrant workers who died of COVID-19 last year, when the province was hit by a massive agriculture outbreak. Overall, more than 2,500 farm workers in Ontario have fallen ill with COVID-19, according to workers’ compensation data. This year, at least five migrant workers have died in quarantine.
“It is time this new government did what the previous government never did – give all migrants full and permanent immigration status to ensure equal rights for those who have sustained our communities during the pandemic,” Coke said.
Earlier this year, the Labor Ministry launched an active health and safety inspection blitz on Ontario farms; Spokesman McSween said inspectors have visited 380 farms and 414 farms in the agricultural services sector.
While no one can replace Chapro, his wife said the family has “tried to follow his example and do their best to survive and keep going.”
But the pain, his wife said, is permanent.
“When you lose a loved one without the opportunity to say goodbye, it will hurt forever.”