Premier Doug Ford says he's planning to consult with constitutional lawyers to see if the province can make COVID-19 testing mandatory for migrant workers, as the province's plan to test all agricultural workers has faltered.
"It's a privilege when you cross the border into some other country," he said, adding that some workers have been resisting getting tested, even though they will be housed and fed, and may be eligible for benefits, if positive.
"And I think we're at the point now, and I tried to work, work, work, work until you can't work any longer with the folks and I would like to look into mandatory testing."
Advocates immediately pushed back with Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, calling for workers to be given better working and living conditions, and full and permanent immigration status, instead.
“Migrant farmworkers feed Ontario and Canada," said Hussan. "Without them the entire food system would collapse but they are excluded from even the most minimal provincial labour rights such as minimum wage and days off. This is not a privilege, its exploitation."
His comments come as COVID-19 cases on farms have driven Windsor-Essex to become the region with the highest rate of the virus in the province. The local public health unit announced 53 new cases on Friday — the most in the province — 43 of them agricultural workers, with eight farms known to be in outbreak.
Provincial health superagency Ontario Health was tasked with overseeing testing but has encountered a string of problems, with the premier at times blasting both workers and farmers for resisting testing.
But it appears another headache was signing a controversial contract for mobile testing at farms that concluded shortly after it was begun.
Startup company Switch Health won a contract to bring mobile test vans to farms in the region after it had engaged Ford friend and former head of PC Caucus Services Jeff Silverstein as a lobbyist. Ontario Health said it had approached 15 potential vendors to do testing of farm workers and Switch emerged with the contract.
The deal raised the ire of the NDP, which opposes the contracting out of public health work to private companies and called on the auditor general to investigate how the contract was awarded. Last week, Bonnie Lysyk replied the contract will be examined as part of her office's value-for-money audit of COVID-19 preparedness and management, which will be released later this year.
However, the arrangement was short-lived.
"The contract with Switch Health was a short-term contract focused on on-site testing only in order to augment other testing efforts; the contract began at the end of June and is now complete," Ontario Health said in an emailed statement. "While 19 farms completed on-site testing according to our records, agri-farm workers have had continued access to voluntary testing through local assessment centres and public health efforts."
But on-site testing at farms — the work Switch Health was contracted to do as of the end of June — has been stalled since early July. As of July 6, testing had been completed on 19 of 175 farms in the region, a number that has not changed to date. At those 19 farms, 1,800 workers were tested, the majority, but not all, by Switch Health, according to Ontario Health.
The agency gave no indication of why the contract wasn't extended or renewed, saying only, "we continue to focus our approach in order to better accommodate other factors unique to this high-risk population."
However, the region's medical officer of health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, said Friday local resources are stretched too thin for public health, hospital and EMS workers to continue to team up to do on-site testing.
"When we had the capacity, we were going out to do the testing as well," he said. "Right now, we are finding the resources are getting stretched and we are all trying to do the right thing. On-site testing is something Ontario Health is still trying to provide and we are aware that some ... testing will continue with a combination of on-site testing as well as the [assessment centre] site that was initially set up."
He wouldn't comment directly on the Switch Health contract, but said there are both pros and cons to the approach. Sending mobile testing units onto farms is resource-intensive, but is helpful when it's used to prevent large groups of sick workers from a farm in outbreak from having to come to an assessment centre.
Earlier this week, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams offered an explanation of why on-site testing of agricultural workers was "paused" — the farms had found the communication about testing confusing and didn't know what would happen if employees tested positive. He said there were plans to resume on-site testing.
Ahmad echoed his comments, saying the public health messaging had become confused by the various ministries and agencies involved in the migrant farm workers issue.
Switch Health referred QP Briefing’s questions to Ontario Health, but it has updated its LinkedIn profile since our initial story about the NDP’s concerns, removing language that described the company's future as “one that is transparent, adaptable, and above all else — profitable."
Windsor-Essex MPP Taras Natyshak, his party's ethics critic, said the short-lived nature of the Switch Health contract makes it imperative that the government release its terms and its cost.
"The fact that the contract barely lasted a month indicates that there was obviously some problems inherent in the delivery of that testing," he said.
He said it looks like the decision to contract out the testing, instead of using the province's own resources, set efforts to fight COVID-19 in the region back weeks. "It jeopardizes the health of migrant workers, it jeopardizes our community, and it jeopardizes our economic recovery."