Ontario farm fined $125K after pleading guilty in COVID-19 outbreak behind Mexican worker’s death

An Ontario farm where a COVID-19 outbreak led to the death of a worker from Mexico was fined $125,000 in a Simcoe court Monday after Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers pleaded guilty to one count of failing to take reasonable precautions to protect employees. 

The farm group had faced 20 charges after an inspection by the provincial Labour Ministry in September. The Ontario Court of Justice was provided with an agreed statement of facts between the ministry and the farm. 

Some 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19 during the spring 2020 outbreak at the Norfolk County vegetable farm in Vittoria, about 75 kilometres south of Hamilton. Juan Lopez Chaparro, 55, died that June. 

The $125,000 fine is far short of the $1.5 million the court could have imposed. That doesn’t do justice to the migrant workers who were sick and living in cramped conditions during the pandemic, said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. 

“This fine is mere peanuts to a multimillion-dollar corporation, and it shows yet again that what’s needed is change at the federal government level,” Hussan told CBC News. “Migrants need permanent resident status to protect themselves.” 

Scott Biddle, owner of Scotlynn Growers, which is based in Norfolk County, would not comment on the guilty plea, said a representative of the farm operation. 

“Honestly, we are disappointed in the judgment,” Hussan said. “These minimal fines are simply the cost of doing business for corporations like Scotlynn, who can have a person die on their farm and hundreds of workers get sick, but they continue to make massive profits off the backs of migrants.” 

Juan Lopez Chaparro died June 20, 2020, after contracting COVID-19 while working at the Scotlynn Group farm. (Provided by Chaparro Family )

At the time of the 2020 outbreak, Scotlynn Growers workers were living in bunkhouses that slept up to 50 men, but they purchased and cooked their own food. They were transported by Scotlynn Growers to various fields by bus or van. 

No consistent screening

According to the agreed statement of facts, “The deceased worker had been bedridden for several days in the bunkhouse he lived in. He had symptoms that were typical of COVID-19 but was not isolated. 

“The employer failed to take the reasonable precaution of isolating COVID-19 symptomatic workers from other workers to protect workers from the transmission of COVID-19 at the workplace.” 

The employer didn’t consistently enforce COVID-19 screening and some workers didn’t report their cold-like symptoms to supervisors, the agreed statement of facts says.

“If symptoms were self-disclosed to supervisors, they were not communicated consistently to Sweetpac management. Supervisors only communicated that workers had symptoms if the supervisor felt it was necessary, meaning if the symptoms were persistent or required medical attention.” 

Chaparro, like thousands of workers who come to Ontario each growing season, was in Canada as part of the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which allows farmers to hire temporary foreign workers.

Luis Gabriel Flores, Chaparro’s bunkmate at Scotlynn Sweetpac, was fired after speaking out about conditions at the farm. 

The province’s Labour Relations Board ordered Scotlynn Growers to pay Flores $20,000 in lost wages and $5,000 in damages.

Migrant workers typically live in communal bunkhouses with shared kitchens and bathrooms, conditions that health officials and advocates for migrant workers had warned, prior to the outbreak, created unsafe conditions in a pandemic.

Advocates say the workers’ families rely on money they earn in Canada, and many don’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs and the ability to earn during the growing season.

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