Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Scottlyn faces 20 COVID-19-related charges

Scottlyn SweetPac Growers Inc. and owner Scott Biddle face 20 charges following Ontario's Ministry of Labour investigation into its handling of an outbreak of COVID-19 that infected 199 of its employees, including one who died. 

Juan Lopez Chaparro, a 55-year-old father of four, died.

Biddle has not commented so far, but the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and Chapparo’s widow, Agustina Galindo Segundo, issued a statement.

"Migrant workers deserve more attention, to not be forgotten, to work in decent conditions and know they will be reunited with their families," she said.

Gabriel Flores, one of the initial workers who became ill, alleged workers were subjected to labour exploitation, substandard housing and were denied testing despite being sick.

"These charges are not enough. There needs to be systemic changes to the laws to make sure workers can safely defend themselves against bad employers," said Flores in response to the charges.

"That change begins with permanent status on arrival for all so that migrants can access the same rights, protections and essential services as anyone else," Flores said.

The 20 labour ministry charges include:

- Failing to isolate COVID-19 symptomatic workers from other workers;

- Lack of masks, face coverings or barriers in areas where workers could not maintain a physical distance of at least two metres;

- Providing workers with information, instruction or supervision on maintaining physical distance, or the use of PPE;

- Reasonable precaution of cleaning or disinfecting high-touch surfaces, equipment or tools to protect workers from transmission.

Early in the outbreak, a Flores colleague reached out to an off-farm contact to have an ambulance sent for a worker who was so ill he could not get out of bed. As a result, the paramedics sent five workers to the hospital, and the farm initiated testing at the end of May 2020.

Flores spoke to the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star while in quarantine. He was fired a few days after speaking to the media. 

In November 2020, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled in favour of Flores after the Mexican whistleblower challenged Scottlyn's move to fire him and attempt to deport him. 

The ruling ordered the company to pay Flores $20,000 in lost wages and $5,000 in damages. 

"The power imbalance between the employer and Mr. Flores, as a migrant worker who does not speak English and relies on the employer for wages, shelter and transportation, should have been more carefully managed," said the labour board ruling. "Since a reprisal can strike a far deeper wound than might otherwise occur in the traditional employment relationship." 

The board ruling added that it was reasonable for Flores to refuse to return to work, especially as there was no evidence that the employer had taken any steps to improve the working or living condition or address the issues raised.

"After more than 190 workers had been infected (including Mr. Flores) and one co-worker who succumbed to the virus," said the ruling. "Mr. Flores could not reasonably be expected to return to the workplace and continue living in the bunkhouse without assurances that sufficient health measures had been taken to specifically address the risks of COVID-19."

"In the last government, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to 'do better by migrant workers," said Karen Cocq, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. 

"It is time for this new government to act, once and for all, and do the only thing that will prevent these tragedies – and that is ensure full and permanent immigration status for all immediately."