Area Farmers Fear Swine Flu Impact

Area farmers fear swine flu impact

Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin
May 1, 2009

Area farmers are anxiously awaiting news from Citizenship and Immigration officials about the swine flu's impact on Mexican farm workers bound for Canada.

Canada has tightened the screening process for the estimated 15,000 incoming Mexican workers in an effort to limit the spread of swine flu, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.

All Mexican workers need to have a fever-check by two doctors, fill out a questionnaire, and undergo a physical before entering Canada, Kenney said.

Mike Weel grows cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower on his 250-acre Clearview Township farm and hires Mexican workers every year.

“We're praying and hoping there is no problem,” he said, while working in one of his greenhouses.

Weel's Mexican workers were to be arriving sometime Wednesday.

“I'm pretty sure we're safe,” he said, of the possibility that some of his seasonal employees would be remaining in their homeland.

Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson Danielle Norris said Tuesday that workers headed to Ontario and other parts of Canada will be checked by Mexican health authorities before being allowed to enter.

That's causing delays for workers coming here, said Weel.

“Normally you have to arrive four or five hours before the flight here. Now it's two days,” he said, about the wait times for medical checkups.

Those wait times could be challenging for poor workers barely getting by, he said.

“I know my guys would probably be alright but there would be a lot of guys who wouldn't,” he said.

Weel makes his hires through the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) Mexican resource management service.

“It's very well organized. They're all checked out before coming. They all get a health card, and if Canada gives them a card, they must be healthy,” said Weel, adding that over the years, very few of the workers must return to Mexico.

“We had one guy ask to go home because he was sick. He had to pay his own way back. He shouldn't have come if he was sick,”Weel said.

The workers are vital to his operation, he added.

“It's all hand-picked, so it's a lot of work.”

The steps announced Monday are being taken with thousands of Mexican migrant workers set to arrive on Canadian farms, which rely on foreign help to meet labour shortages during the growing season.

“We think we've taken robust measures in co-operation with Mexican authorities to protect the health of Canadians,” Kenney said earlier this week.

“Someone who comes to work here — for any period of time — needs a medical exam just before departing.”

Kenney said the measure was devised in consultation with the Mexican government.

He says it's unclear how much the measure will help halt the spread of illness, and it's possible additional steps could be taken if the virus spread worsens.

Currently, workers and students coming for longer than six months need to get a medical screening, but the rule change will apply to all of the up to 20,000 Mexican workers expected here this year.

Kenney called it a “robust” first step and said officials in a handful of departments are tracking the virus.

“If things change we can modify our approach. Right now, we believe we have put in place the necessary steps to protect Canadians' safety,” he said.

“If the situation changes, we're open to another approach.”

As of Tuesday, the number of suspected swine flu cases in Mexico had climbed to 1,614, including 103 deaths.

Reaume said many have been working at the same farms for as many as 15 to 20 years, and there are often strong ties between the farm workers and farmers.

“In many cases, these people are like family,” he said.

For the Mexican workers, it is an opportunity to send money home that permits their families to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle.

“They earn more in eight months in Canada than in two years at home,” he said.

Mexican migrant labourers are at work in Grey-Bruce now, mostly at apple orchards in eastern Grey County, in the Town of Blue Mountains area and Meaford area.

Grey-Bruce farmers employed 190 Mexican migrants working last year as part of a long-standing federal initiative, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. About 28 are here now.

As concern of a possible world swine flu pandemic grows, the Ministry of Labour and the Public Health Agency of Canada are implementing a three-day assessment process to make sure migrant workers bound for Canada don't have the illness before coming to Canada.

They'll need to have a fever-check by two doctors, fill out a questionnaire, and undergo a physical.

“It's basically because you don't know you're sick with flu for a couple of days and you could still be excreting it,” said Dr. Hazel Lynn, the Grey-Bruce medical officer of health.

She said earlier this week that she expects Grey-Bruce cases “in the next day or so,” involving locals who have recently returned from Mexico. Canada has 13 confirmed cases of the so-called swine flu — including four cases of this particular flu virus confirmed in the Toronto area.

Ken Forth, a Hamilton-area broccoli farmer who is president of the board directors of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), knows of no migrant workers who've fallen ill to the flu strain, which may have originated in southeastern Mexico in an area of large pig farms.

“There is still concern but there is certainly no panic,” Forth said yesterday.

FARMS is the go-between that brings migrant workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to Ontario farms under a program authorized by Human Resources Skills Development Canada.

Forth estimated 8,500 out of the 15,000 migrant workers who come to Ontario annually are from Mexico. The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program helps place about 22,000 migrant workers in every province but Newfoundland annually, more than two-thirds from Mexico.

About 30 per cent of apple growers in the Georgian Triangle use migrant Mexican workers, while most of the rest employ Caribbean workers, said Shane Ardiel, president of the Georgian Bay Fruit Growers.

Most of those workers don't typically arrive until the fall apple harvest, he said.

Sidney Dykstra currently employs five experienced Mexican tree pruners at his Clarksburg apple farm. They came from Mexico in mid-April.

One of his workers told him “the flu thing is really not that big of a concern for the men that are here because it is actually in three of the larger cities and these fellows live out in the country quite a bit.”

He said all of his workers are healthy and they have been in touch with their families in Mexico by phone.

Hi-Berry Farm in Port Elgin employes 10 migrant labourers from Mexico. They were planting strawberries this week. They're relying on them because it's crunch time now; all the crops are being or are about to be planted in the fields, Luke Charbonneau said.

The language barrier makes learning details of the flu outbreak in Mexico from his workers difficult, since none of his Mexican employees speak much English.

But they have communicated to him that the flu is not that great a concern to them because they too are from remote rural areas, far enough removed from big cities to avoid contact with the flu bug, they believe.

Charbonneau's business relies on migrant workers because of the scarcity of local workers available or willing to work in the fields, he said. A program requirement is that the jobs must first be advertised locally.

He needs another 10 Mexican workers by early June, in time to harvest the strawberry crop.

If something were to happen to close the border to Mexican workers, his business would be forced to close for the season, unless he could source Caribbean workers through the migrant worker program, he said.

“We would be unable to harvest the product that we're producing without these guys.

“It would be pretty devastating I would think to the whole industry. There's 15,000 of these guys come every year and without them, horticulture in Ontario just doesn't really happen.”

Forth, at FARMS, said he thinks there has been undue attention given to Mexican seasonal farm workers amid the current health scare.

He said Canadian tourists present as much if not more of a risk of bringing the flu virus back to Canada. He said 20,000 people in Kitchener-Waterloo area alone go to Mexico every year.

“How many does that mean across the province? Like a couple hundred thousand.

“They're every bit as susceptible as the foreign workers, maybe more because the Canadian tourist is going to travel all over the darn place.

“Where a Mexican farm worker, especially if he's coming up here, is probably staying with his family the last few weeks.”

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