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Farm worker safety is focus of new support

If we want cheap food – and it’s proven time and time again that we do – one way or another we have to pay for it.

One way we pay for it is with cheap-ish labour, mainly with temporary farm workers from other countries. That approach requires huge oversight from farmers and from governments to make sure those workers have the conditions they need to succeed, including housing.

Economically, it makes sense that farmers and governments would do all they can to look after these workers. Anything less, and crops are at risk of not getting harvested. In Ontario, that’s gambling with a major part of a $47.5-billion industry.

And that’s to say nothing of the morality involved in taking care of employees, which should be an assumption we all make.

The workers typically live in shared quarters and work closely together in fields, greenhouses and processing plants. During the pandemic, on some operations, they worked too closely together to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The results were disastrous and, in some cases, fatal.

New efforts continue to be made to protect workers on farms. On Tuesday, the federal and provincial governments got together in Woodstock to announce an additional $11.6 million was being committed to help farmers do a better job of battling the pandemic and keeping workers safe.

This is part of the $35 million the federal government has dedicated to this specific effort, and on top of the $15 million the province announced in June for a program it calls the Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program.

Ottawa has also contributed significantly in other ways to help the agri-food sector through the pandemic. For example, to cover costs associated with the required 14-day isolation period for workers arriving from other countries, it created the $50 million Mandatory Isolation Support Program for Temporary Foreign Workers program.

As well, it committed to investing up to $77.5 million through the federal Emergency Processing Fund to help companies implement changes to safeguard the health and safety of workers impacted by COVID-19.

And finally, it’s increased funding for the Ontario Risk Management Program by $50 million to help farmers deal with the severe market challenges resulting from COVID-19.

The new money announced Tuesday will help farmers invest in measures such as building physical barriers for worker separation, upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and enhancing hand-washing facilities.

Included in this initiative is a provision for up to $100,000 for farmers to make housing and workplace modifications that promote greater physical separation for workers. Farms at the highest risk will receive priority.

Critics will argue this should have all been done sooner, and that the tight housing and conditions that are part of the temporary farm worker culture invites such problems.

But the reality is that the pandemic caught everyone flat footed, and the agri-food sector was not immune.

Worker conditions that would traditionally be considered safe need to change as long as we’re all vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Some will argue that the new safeguards should stay in place after the threat has subsided.

Farmers continue to try to figure it all out. Keith Currie, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says adopting pandemic protocols and making adaptations on farm and to accommodations has added another layer of complexity and expense to farm businesses.

Someone has to pay for it. On Tuesday, that someone shifted from consumers to taxpayers. But really, they’re one in the same. Ultimately, we all have to pay the real cost of food.

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