Flu outbreak leaves Mexican workers in limbo
Officials will meet today to consider whether it's safe for thousands of farmhands to travel to Canada
From Monday's Globe and Mail
April 27, 2009 at 3:25 AM EDT
MONTREAL Canadian and Mexican officials are scheduled to meet today to assess whether it's safe for thousands of Mexican agricultural workers to travel to Canada in light of the swine flu outbreak.
More than 15,000 Mexican workers are entering Canada this year under a federal seasonal farm workers' program, a number of them due to arrive in the coming days and weeks. The volatile state of the flu outbreak in Mexico is creating worries among Canadian farmers, who regard the Mexican farmhands as crucial for their production.
In Montreal, planes carrying Mexican farm workers have been landing every weekday evening at Trudeau International Airport, and while a flight landed on Friday, the status of today's flight is uncertain.
“If they put an embargo on this program, it will be catastrophic for me and the great majority of other growers,” said Jacques Notaro, a lettuce grower south of Montreal who is awaiting farm workers from Mexico this week.
Countries planned quarantines, tightened rules on pork imports and tested airline passengers for fevers as global health officials tried Sunday to come up with uniform ways to battle a deadly strain of swine flu
Concerns about his labour supply are coupled with vigilance toward the dozen Mexican labourers who already arrived on his farm.
“Every time a worker coughs I don't take any chances – I bring him to a clinic,” Mr. Notaro said yesterday.
Another Quebec grower in the Mauricie region brought a Mexican farm aid to hospital over the weekend because of concerns about the flu; the employee was given a clean bill of health.
Ren Mantha, director-general of the organization that co-ordinates farm-labour placement in Quebec, is working on a “Plan B” in case Canada temporarily suspends the Mexican program. But he said a delay of even a few days can hurt local fruit and vegetable growers, for whom May and June are the busiest months.
“There are pretty urgent decisions to make. We can't replace thousands of workers overnight,” Mr. Mantha said. “There's a long selection and recruiting process. In the short term, it would be impossible to replace these workers. This is very serious. Everyone is worried.”
He said Canadian and Mexican officials are to meet in Mexico City this morning to address the issue.
“The idea is to avoid running risks to our population,” Mr. Mantha said. “We want to ensure the workers aren't carrying the virus.”
Nearly 17,000 Mexican farm workers came to Canada under the federal program last year, and between 15,000 and 20,000 are expected this year. About 300 are expected to land in Montreal this week alone.
Immigration Canada, which screens Mexicans for the farm-labour program, is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and other agencies to assess current risks.
In response to the virus outbreak, all temporary foreign workers from Mexico are required to undergo a pre-departure examination, which includes a questionnaire, physical exam and fever measure performed by two doctors, an aide to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said yesterday.
The examination is done prior to departure, at the time of permit collection in Mexico City.
Mexican workers form the majority of employees who come to Quebec farms. Several farms also employ workers from Guatemala, but they transit through Mexico to get to Canada.
In Ontario, which gets the largest share of Mexican farm workers in Canada, growers are also warily watching the virus's progress.
“It is a concern and it's something we're going to monitor,” said Ray Duc, a grape grower in Niagara-on-the-Lake and board director of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association. He said Mexican workers are “a good, reliable source of help, and we're dependent on them.”
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