Microbial Health Risks Facing Migrant Farm Workers in Canada: The Realities that Pre-date COVID-19

Published On: May 2020Categories: COVID-19 Response, Editorials, Social ImpactsTags:


Nadwa Elbadri

Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Waterloo

MASc Candidate

Nadwa Elbadri

As the world battles an ongoing pandemic, it is hard not to notice all of the changes happening around us. From changing daily routines, to ever-evolving policies, change seems to be the only constant over the last couple of weeks. One major change that has the potential to impact many agricultural communities is the closing of international borders. For many farmers, this would limit their ability to bring in migrant farmworkers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). In an effort to safeguard trade, health and food security for Canadians, the Government of Canada provided an update on travel restrictions, with exemptions that include seasonal agricultural workers. As we try to navigate the details of these new changes, it’s important to address the structural issues that currently already exist within the SAWP. Precarious working and living conditions, coupled with weak enforcement of workplace and housing standards, are long standing issues that pre-date and exacerbate the risks associated with the arrival of COVID-19. Circumstances that can put seasonal farmworkers at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Seasonal workers, mainly from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, work in specific on-farm primary agricultural activities. These activities include care, breeding, and sanitation of animals, and the planting, harvesting and preparation of crops. This seasonal labour force is a vital part of the food system, Canadian food security, and the economy. Migrant workers can make positive contributions to a farm’s performance, and productivity, bringing in culturally unique skills. In Canada, they fill a labour gap on an annual basis, making them an experienced, reliable and consistent work force. Workers coming in under SAWP have the opportunity to financially support their families and livelihoods back home, while also heavily contributing to the flow of remittance in their home countries.

However, despite the requirement for health screening prior to arrival, research has shown that migrant farmworkers face a range of known specific health threats during their tenure in Canada. These include physical trauma causing musculoskeletal disorders, and microbial exposures causing gastrointestinal illnesses (Orkin et al.,2014). Previous studies have also shown that migrant farmworkers face increased vulnerability to infectious diseases (Oren et al.,2014). The factors driving the microbial health risks facing this population are already present, making the quarantine measures necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 difficult to achieve.

Potential factors contributing to farmworker microbial health most notably include preharvest sources of microbial contamination. Some of these sources include: the irrigation water source used, crop type, soil applications, animals husbandry on site, and inadequately composted manure (Stine et al.,2005). Although many of these large farms allow for worker separation on fields, and in greenhouses, they lack adequate hygiene and sanitation facilities in these workplace settings. Insufficient toilet and handwashing facilities at worksites, may heighten the risk of migrant farmworkers developing and spreading microbial diseases (Hennebry and Preibisch.,2011). Risks can be managed through the delivery of appropriate training, provision of adequate worksite hygiene and sanitation facilities, and supply of proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

The temporary nature of their working and living arrangement is also a risk driver, where temporary infrastructure and high occupational densities can accelerate the rate of secondary transmission of microbial disease. These elements can be better managed through strong housing guidelines and frequent inspections to ensure compliance. The Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Services (F.A.R.M.S), responsible for facilitating and coordinating requests for seasonal agricultural workers, provides a document outlining seasonal farmworker housing guidelines. The limits identified note at least 18-inches between bunk beds, and 10 workers to a single toilet, making it difficult to maintain safe social distance under normal conditions, and nearly impossible during a pandemic. For some incoming travellers the government has provided accommodations in hotels, or isolated military bases, to properly carry out the mandatory 14-day isolation. As for migrant farmworkers, we have left them to variable living conditions, and have unfairly relinquished the responsibility with very little guidance to employers.

Ultimately, as we have seen unfold in the last few weeks, “the participation of temporary foreign workers on our farms and in our food businesses is absolutely necessary”, as noted by Minister Claude Bibeau. Given the current circumstances, we need to highlight in our broader policy development the need to protect migrant worker health. To start, we must address the microbial health risks that pre-date COVID-19 facing this group of workers. Ensuring worksite hygiene and sanitation facilities, compliance of housing guidelines, and access to health care, will ensure lasting positive change – change that will contribute to better management of microbial health risks, and improved Canadian food and public health security.


Hennebry, Jenna, and Kerry Preibisch. “Temporary Migration , Chronic Effects: The Health of International Migrant Workers in Canada.” Cmaj, vol. 183, no. 9, 2011, pp. 1–6, doi:10.1503/cmaj.091404.I.
Oren, E., et al. “Detection of Latent Tuberculosis Infection among Migrant Farmworkers along the US-Mexico Border.” BMC Infectious Diseases, vol. 16, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1–9, doi:10.1186/s12879-016-1959-3.
Orkin, A. M., et al. “Medical Repatriation of Migrant Farm Workers in Ontario: A Descriptive Analysis.” CMAJ Open, vol. 2, no. 3, 2014, pp. E192–98, doi:10.9778/cmajo.20140014.
Stine, Scott W., et al. “Application of Microbial Risk Assessment to the Development of Standards for Enteric Pathogens in Water Used to Irrigate Fresh Produce.” Journal of Food Protection, vol. 68, no. 5, 2005, pp. 913–18, doi:10.4315/0362-028X-68.5.913.