In the face of a persistent COVID-19 outbreak in Essex County’s agri-farm sector, the advocacy group Justice For Migrant Workers (J4MW) wants a complete industry-wide stoppage.

In an interview with CTV News, J4MW spokesperson Chris Ramsaroop claims inaction to protect migrant workers in the agri-farm sector in the early days of the pandemic has led to the need for a work stoppage.

“What’s happening, particularly in the Windsor-Essex area, is a crisis,” said Ramsaroop. “Immediate, drastic measures need to be taken to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t spread further.”

To date, three migrant worker deaths have been tied to COVID-19 while 42 per cent of the 1,602 confirmed cases in Windsor-Essex have been linked to the agri-farm sector.

On Sunday, the region saw its greatest spike yet of COVID-19 cases with 98 reported by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU), of which 96 were associated with area farms. On Monday, the second-largest single-day case count was reported by the WECHU with 88 confirmed cases – 87 of which were tied to the agri-farm sector.

“If we’re concerned about protecting the interest of our food system, the interest of people of Ontario, then let’s start by protecting the interest of workers which we believe is paramount,” said Ramsaroop.

The drastic action called for by J4MW is not something that can easily be done or something health officials are recommending.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, has issued orders to the sector to better ensure the health and safety of migrant workers but notes, the health unit has not issued a fine to any farm operations as of yet.

“Calling it a complete stoppage of work in [the] agri-farm sector, I’m not sure if it can be sustainable – or even a decision that would make public health sense,” said Ahmed.

While even those calling for the shutdown admit its severity, it is not entirely out of the question.

On Monday, the Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, suggested the province could close farms with major outbreaks.

“What actually is necessary to ensure that we prevent and control the spread of this infection? It’s very infectious as we’ve said,” Yaffe said in a news conference. “One of the options is to close the farm. That has other ramifications. It’s not the automatic thing we would do but, it’s one of the considerations.”

Outside help in the form of Dr. Alex Summers and two staff from the Middlesex-London Health Unit will assist in on-the-ground contact tracing and case management to help contain the agri-farm outbreaks in Essex County. A further 11 people will be on hand for out-of-town support to help with the workload the WECHU is facing.

The province has also sent teams including nurses to affected farm operations to interview those who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus to help contain the spread.

The measures though are not enough for the advocacy group.

Asymptomatic migrant workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are still permitted to work and Ramsaroop sees that as an indication migrant workers will be at risk of a second wave of the epidemic.

“I think all of us agree that there’s going to be a second spike,” he said. “So, what proactive measures are we going to take to protect workers in the future?”

On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said there had been 70 orders issued to the agri-farm sector but, there was no indication any farm operator was at risk of being shut down due to a COVID outbreak.

There are six workplaces in the agri-farm sector that remain in outbreak, two in Kingsville and four in Leamington, according to the WECHU.