Calls for inquest into ag worker deaths

Calls for inquest into ag worker deaths
May 07, 2021

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A review of COVID-19 temporary foreign agricultural worker deaths is not enough without enforceable change, advocacy group says

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Farms.com

The Office of the Chief Coroner in Ontario recently released the deputy chief coroner’s review of the deaths of temporary foreign agricultural workers (TFAW) in 2020 from COVID-19. The report contains 35 recommendations to various stakeholders, however advocates for TFAW say this is inadequate, and a public inquest is necessary.

Three TFAW from Mexico, Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, Rogelio Munoz Santos, and Juan Lopez Chaparro, died of COVID-19 in Ontario in 2020.

“The specific goal of this review is to prevent further morbidity and mortality of TFAWs,” said Reuven Jhirad, deputy chief coroner for the province of Ontario, in the April 27 report.

“We should not forget that this review and its recommendations arise out of the unfortunate and untimely deaths of three men who left their home country to work in ours,” he said.  “It is our hope that these recommendations provide some comfort to those mourning their loss as the lessons learned from these deaths strive to prevent further deaths.”

The recommendations in the report involve clarifying jurisdiction and standard processes around the TFAW program, improved transparency in record-keeping, communication between governments, employers and workers, funding for improved infrastructure, and other efforts to prevent further TFAW deaths. They are directed at TFAW program staff, departments within the federal and provincial government, employers, and local public health organizations. 

“The report has been shared with the specific government ministries, groups, and participants in the review, and they are aware of the recommendations,” Stephanie Rea, issues manager for the Office of the Chief Coroner and Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, told Farms.com. “Many of the recommendations will involve a collaborative approach between levels of government, employers, and other organizations.”

The Office of the Chief Coroner will “follow up with the recipients of the recommendations at both six months and one year to look at the acceptance and implementation of the recommendations,” she added.

Ernie Hardeman, Ontario minister of agriculture, food, and rural affairs, thanked the Office of the Deputy Chief Coroner for the review and report.

“We are saddened by these tragedies and extend our condolences to the workers’ families, friends and co-workers,” he said in a statement. “We are carefully reviewing the recommendations in the report and my ministry will work with experts to address the Deputy Chief Coroner’s recommendations in a timely and responsive manner.”

The report recommended that the Office of the Chief Coroner and Ontario Forensic Pathology Service should consider calling an inquest into TFAW deaths during COVID-19, and “should consider ensuring that the death of vulnerable persons, such as TFAWs (both documented and undocumented), be mandatory to report under the Coroners Act.”

Both are under consideration by the department, Rea said. “Inquests can be called at any time, but are on hold right now due to public health measures.”

An inquest would differ from the coroner’s investigation.

“Inquests are public, fact-finding processes to inform the public of the circumstances of a death (or deaths). At the end of an inquest, a jury can make recommendations to prevent further deaths in the same circumstances,” Rea explained. “The goal of an inquest would be determined in advance by parties that have standing and in part of the inquest planning process.”

An inquest should be necessary in the case of TFAW deaths, Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, told Farms.com. The organization advocates for migrant worker rights.

“We have always said that every farm worker death must be followed by a mandatory coroner’s inquest,” he said. “This entire coroner’s investigation was a waste of resources and unnecessary because it does not provide any enforceable regulatory changes and it’s been done in secret so there’s no public scrutiny.”

 The organization is “aware of at least five migrant farm workers that have died already this year, in the last two months, while we still haven’t had an inquest on the deaths from last year,” he added.

To help prevent further deaths, a review must lead to enforceable change.

“The federal government must grant full and permanent immigration status to (all TFAW), and the provincial government must ensure that migrant farm workers are included in all provincial rights and benefits, including full inclusion in labour law, healthcare and other protections,” Hussan said.

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