The rise in COVID-19 cases among temporary foreign workers is accelerating. Qualified as “worrying” by the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec (INSPQ), this increase is also reflected in the number of outbreaks, from three to nine among these temporary workers, according to the weekly report published Monday.
Temporary foreign workers will have the opportunity to receive a first dose of vaccine upon their arrival at the airport on Tuesday morning, a campaign coordinated by the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, with the collaboration of ‘a network of workers, employers and the Montreal airport.
In total, the INSPQ has identified 86 temporary foreign workers infected with the virus in 6 regions, 60% of which are in the agricultural sector. Outbreaks of infection have also been reported in a meat slaughtering and packing industry, as well as in a warehouse that employs this workforce.
In comparison, there were only 20 cases identified among temporary foreign workers during the last week of May. “More particular attention” is paid to these outbreaks, indicates Richard Martin, scientific advisor to the INSPQ, “because of their working and living conditions”.
In total, more than 20,000 temporary foreign workers will pass through Quebec in 2021, including a majority of around 16,000 in agriculture, a number that has doubled since 2015. While some of these “seasonal” workers are currently arriving with With contracts lasting up to eight months, more and more are working year round, for example in greenhouses or food processing plants, with contracts of up to two years.
Vaccination at the airport
“Mexico and Guatemala, the two source countries, have significant challenges from a health point of view,” said Denis Roy, director of finance and agricultural labor for the Union of agricultural producers (UPA). “We are not necessarily surprised, that’s why additional measures were put in place on arrival,” he continues.
From Tuesday morning, a first dose of vaccine will be offered to them upon their arrival at the airport. “Everything is in place to start and it is sure that it will facilitate the procedures for everyone”, confirmed Fernando Borja, the general manager of the Foundation of companies recruiting foreign agricultural labor (FERME) .
A charter flight from Guatemala, with up to 180 workers on board, will be the first group to benefit from it on Tuesday. 13 of these flights organized by employers are expected in June.
“We are already on site to distribute information to arriving workers and we will be able to explain to them that they have the choice to be vaccinated,” said Michel Pilon, coordinator of the Support Network for Migrant Agricultural Workers. of Quebec (RATTMAQ).
“We are aware that there may be reluctance, so they can also change their mind and get vaccinated later,” says Borja.
Promiscuity in accommodation
Mr. Pilon also says he is “worried” about the health situation, considering the housing conditions in which most of these people live.
“These are spaces where transmission can take place very quickly,” also indicates Mariève Pelletier, scientific advisor specializing in occupational health at the INSPQ.
These workers are predominantly men from Mexico and Guatemala. They have had access to vaccination since April 8 with priority group 9, that is to say at the same time as people aged 60 and over.
Among the outbreaks enumerated, 21 cases linked to 4 companies occurred during the quarantine period. These workers are tested shortly before their departure for Quebec, upon their arrival at the airport and eight days after the start of their isolation. They are exempt from quarantine at the hotel, but must be accommodated in suitable accommodation, at least for this period.
“We really recommend isolation with one person per room for quarantine,” says Mme Pelletier. But it is up to Quebec City and Ottawa to make this measure mandatory, she said, which neither level of government has done. Dormitories are also not prohibited.
Workers can then move into their usual accommodation. The standards for these dwellings are prescribed by the federal government and “do not allow the respect of the minimum distance of two meters between people”, which the INSPQ put forward with the pandemic. There is no limit imposed on the number of workers per room, neither by Ottawa nor by Quebec, but the INSPQ recommends a maximum of two people and a space of 9 m2, in order to be able to move around the bed.
The minimum standard is currently 45 centimeters between each bed – less than an arm’s length – rather than 2 meters. The other current minimum standards are also low, workers associations have said for several years: 1 toilet for 10 workers, 1 shower for 10 workers, 1 refrigerator for 6 workers.