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Ontario farm pleads guilty to worker's death, first COVID-19 case prosecuted under provincial safety laws

Of the 216 migrant workers at Scotlynn Group's farm in Norfolk County, Ont., 125 have tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 216 migrant workers at Scotlynn Group's farm in Norfolk County, Ont., 125 have tested positive for COVID-19.
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Scotlynn Farms, based in Vittoria, Ont., has pleaded guilty in the COVID-19 death of one of its workers. It's the first COVID-19 prosecution of an employer under the occupational health and safety laws in the province.

Scotlynn Farms agreed to pay a fine of $125,000, plus $31,250 for court costs.

The Norfolk County farm was facing 27 charges under the Reopening Ontario Act and the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. Seven of those were laid against Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers Inc. in April 2021, and another 20 charges were added in September 2021. Those new charges were split between the Scotlynn Group and its president and CEO Scott Biddle.

According to the agreed statement of facts, Scotlynn employs approximately 220 agricultural workers who live in bunkhouses that can accommodate between eight and 50 people. 

It went on to say that Scotlynn did not take the "reasonable precaution of isolating COVID-19 symptomatic workers" to protect other employees and they "did not consistently implement and enforce screening for COVID-19 symptoms" in the workplace.

Further, it stated that several workers experienced "cold-like symptoms" that they did not report to their supervisors. The supervisors, in turn, only reported those instances where the worker's symptoms were persistent or they required medical attention.

The agreed statement of facts also said between May 13, 2020 and August 10, 2020, Scotlynn "allowed workers to self-regulate masking and ought to have been more pro-active."

DEATH AT SCOTLYNN FARMS

More than 200 workers at the farm tested positive for COVID-19 between May and June 2020, and three had to be hospitalized.

One of them, Juan Lopez Chaparro, died from the disease. The 55-year-old father of four passed away at a London hospital on June 20, 2020. For a decade, Chaparro had traveled from Mexico to Canada for work to support his family back home.

Chaparro's bunkmate, Luis Gabriel Flores, also contracted COVID-19 while working at Scotlynn Farms. He was fired after speaking publically about his employer's handling of the outbreak and conditions on the farm.

"The situation created the perfect conditions for the COVID-19 outbreak that made us ill," he told CTV News on July 30, 2020.

Flores claimed the Scotlynn Group failed to act when workers began showing symptoms of the illness and they only took the situation seriously when workers called an ambulance for a sick employee.

He also alleged that the company's founder threatened him with deportation for talking to the media.

Scott Biddle told CTV News in July 2020 that the allegations were false, but declined an on-camera interview.

In November 2020, the Labour Relations Board ruled that Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers Inc. broke the law when it fired Flores. The company was ordered to pay him $25,000.

Flores received a one-time vulnerable worker permit after he spoke out, but was unable to get it renewed, so he was forced to return to Mexico.

PROTECTING MIGRANT WORKERS

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, an organization advocating for worker and immigration justice, is calling for more to be done to protect migrant workers in Canada.

"While Scotlynn gets a slap on the wrist, these kinds of exploitative working conditions remain common across the country because migrants can only come to Canada with precarious and vulnerable immigration status," said Executive Director Syed Hussan in a media release. "Canada has failed to protect the migrant workers who fed us and took care of us during the pandemic. The only way to establish fairness is to support equal rights for migrants by granting permanent residency so that they can defend themselves against abusive employers. Instead, Canada has made it easier for employers to hire more precarious, temporary migrants."

He added that the fine paid by Scotlynn Farms will not be paid to the family of Juan Lopez Chaparro.

"The fine will go to the municipality, but Juan’s family, Gabriel and other workers will receive no reparations; there is no justice done here."

In December 2021, Canada's auditor general released a report showing the federal government failed to ensure agricultural producers were properly protecting migrant workers from COVID-19.

At the time of the report, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change stated six temporary foreign workers had already died from the illness, though they believed the actual number was higher.

The Liberal government promised to enact new requirements for agricultural producers, including proper accommodations for quarantining migrant workers. While inspectors at Employment and Social Development Canada said almost all farms were complying with those regulations, the auditor general said the majority weren't properly inspected.

"We found that the department assessed almost all employers as compliant with the COVID-19 requirements, despite having gathered little or no evidence to demonstrate this," the report read.

Inspectors, it added, had evidence that suggested employers were violating requirements but "there was no evidence that the department challenged or followed up with employers. The department still found the employers compliant."

MORE: Fed failed to ensure farms protected migrant workers from COVID-19: Auditor general

The report also stated that the officials were slow or failed to properly inspect facilities where outbreaks were occurring. 

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