Migrant worker who got COVID-19 says he was fired from Ontario farm for speaking out

By | July 30, 2020

TORONTO — After migrant worker Luis Gabriel Flores Flores tested positive for COVID-19 following an outbreak at an Ontario produce farm, he turned to journalists to share his fears over what he described as unsafe working conditions.

A few weeks later — only one day after his bunkmate had died of COVID-19 — his employer came looking for Flores at the bunkhouse where the workers lived.

He was told that he, and three others who were suspected of speaking to press, were being fired.

They told Flores they would be “sending [him] back to Mexico at dawn,” he said.

These allegations, which the farm in question denies, are described in an 8-page legal complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and in a letter Flores delivered this week to the office of Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino in downtown Toronto.

The complaint alleges that Flores’s employment was terminated unjustly in a reprisal against him for speaking out about the poor working conditions his employer subjected him to. As part of his complaint, Flores is seeking $28,000 in damages for direct and future earning losses, as well as $10,000 for emotional pain and suffering he endured.

Flores and the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) held a press conference on Thursday to let the public know that Flores’s experience is one of many.

And they are raising an alarm in the hopes that the federal government will hear them.

“We’re here because we’re calling on the federal government of Canada to give full and permanent immigration status for all,” Syed Hussan, Executive Director of MWAC, said in the press conference.

“Migrant workers want to protect their health, want to protect their safety, but it’s federal immigration rules that make it impossible for them to do so.”

Three migrant workers have died of COVID-19 in Canada so far, Hussan said, and 1,100 are sick.

One of these deaths was Juan Lopez Chapparo, a 55-year-old father who worked and lived with Flores.

During the pandemic, the farms that many of these migrant workers were employed at were declared essential, and migrant workers were allowed to enter the country even when borders were closed to others.

But because seasonal migrant workers have such a precarious status within the country, it is harder for them to stand up to employers who take advantage of them or subject them to unjust working conditions, according to MWAC — a reality that the pandemic made even more dangerous.

Flores was in Canada on a restricted work permit, which meant his ability to remain in Canada was tied completely to the specific employer he had travelled to Canada to work with.

“One in 23 people in this country — or 1.6 million people in the country — don’t have permanent immigration status, can’t access basic health care, can’t access basic work, and they are fired when they speak out,” Hussan said.

Flores is 36 years old, and from Mexico City. He originally started travelling to Canada for seasonal work in 2014, and has worked four seasons in the country.

This year, he arrived in April to work at a Norfolk Country asparagus farm owned by the Scotlynn Group.

According to Flores’ letter, which he read out at the press conference, when they arrived at the farm, they found cramped, unsanitary housing conditions.

“There was very little space in the room, and in the houses,” he said. “It was impossible to keep distant.”

He added that protective gear such as face masks or hand sanitizer were not provided for workers.

Then, people began to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, including one of Flores’ roommates: Chapparo.

Workers told the foreman that there were sick people, Flores said, “and asked for them to get medical attention.

“They ignored us.”

Employers only began to pay attention to the outbreak when an ambulance had to be called for a worker who was seriously ill, according to Flores.

By the time the workforce was tested, 199 out of 221 workers had already contracted the virus and tested positive.

Flores was among them.

He was horrified by what had happened on the farm, and the working conditions that he and his fellow workers had been put through. So while he was going through his second quarantine, he spoke anonymously to press outlets about the outbreak and labour exploitation, in order to shine a light on the mistreatment migrant workers are facing during this pandemic.

When these allegations surfaced, Scott Biddle, President and CEO of Scotlynn Group, denied them, telling CTV News in early June that workers had been immediately taken to hospital for evaluations when they became sick.

After Flores returned to work, he said that even after the outbreak, “conditions really had hardly changed.”

On June 20, Flores and his coworkers were given the tragic news that Chapparo had died of COVID-19.

They were “shocked,” he said. “It left us very saddened and also afraid [for] our lives.

“I told the foreman the farm should take responsibility for what happened,” Flores said. “Perhaps Juan’s death and this illness could have been prevented if they had paid attention to us when we were asking for help.”

Flores alleges that the very next day, Biddle’s father, Robert Biddle Jr., fired him after accusing him of speaking to the media, and threatened him with deportation.

“Mr. Flores was fired as a sign,” Hussan said. “As a symbol from employers and from federal immigration laws that if you speak up in this country, you can be made homeless, you can be deported.”

Scotlynn Group declined an on-camera interview with CTV News, but said that Flores’ allegations are “totally false,” and that Flores was “never fired from the company or threatened to be deported.”

The prospect of being deported was frightening to Flores, who works in Canada to support his family. Back home, he has a wife, two daughters, and a mother with disabilities, who recently had a major operation that the family still owes money for.

It was then that he reached out to MWAC for help and temporary lodging.

“My story is a story of many others,” he said. “What happened to me can and does happen to many migrant workers.”

He is calling for a “comprehensive immigration solution

“We spend most of the year in Canada, more time than we spend home with our families. We are an essential part of this economy and society, and we deserve the same rights.”

Many Canadians agree that things need to change. Already, more than 10,000 have signed an online petition demanding permanent status for the farm workers who put food on our tables. 

With files from CTV News’ Molly Thomas

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