Groups call for migrant workers to get safe, priority access to COVID-19 vaccine

A migrant worker advocacy group is raising concerns about the process to get temporary foreign workers vaccinated.

The Migrant Rights Network is calling for a series of measures to ensure visitors doing essential work in Canada are protected against COVID-19.

“Promises need to be turned into real policies and practices,” says Syed Hussan of the Migrant Rights Network.

By the end of Spring, close to 10,000 migrant workers will arrive in Windsor-Essex County to work at area farms and greenhouses.

The Migrant Rights Network wants to ensure they’re safe and vaccinated in a dignified manner.

The organization, backed by doctors and labour, has sent the government a list of solutions to ensure their immigration status is not a barrier to getting vaccinated.

Solutions include ensuring the shots are free of charge, that a health card or health card number isn’t required and that the process will ensure privacy for undocumented workers.

“Many uninsured people with precarious status also worry of being reported to the CBSA to face detention or deportation,” says Dr. Danyaal Raza, who is a Toronto-area physician and also chairperson of Canadian Doctors for Medicare. “Some as a result may avoid receiving the vaccination altogether.”

In 2020, hundreds of migrant farm workers in Essex County contracted COVID-19, and two of them died.

“Thousands of workers will become affected again this year, the conditions have not changed,” says Byron Cruz of the Migrant Rights Network. “The way they are living on the farms, their housing conditions, have not changed.”

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers believe all agri-food workers should be prioritized, both foreign and domestic workers.

“As an agricultural sector we take our service to the community and to the country very, very seriously,” says OGVG president, Joseph Sbrocchi. “We want to maintain our food supply to the country. And this would be a key way of ensuring it and assisting the rest of business around us to make sure that they’re ok too.”

The province has left the decision over who should get priority access to vaccines up to local public health units.

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit was unavailable for comment on the matter Thursday.

But the federal government’s priority guideline lists migrants living in housing as stage two recipients.

“Prioritizing migrant workers for vaccinations makes public health sense, it makes economic sense, it makes humanitarian sense,” says Taras Natyshak, MPP for Essex.

Natyshak also notes any decision around vaccines should be backed by science, not immigration status.

“It certainly makes sense to us given what we know already that migrant workers are a vulnerable population and should be treated as such,” Natyshak says.

“If that population makes our region more vulnerable in terms of transmission then that population should be one of the first that is vaccinated.”