Migrant worker who contracted COVID-19 says he was fired from an Ontario farm for speaking out

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TORONTO – After migrant worker Luis Gabriel Flores Flores tested positive for COVID-19 following an outbreak on an Ontario production farm, he turned to reporters to share his fears about this which he described as unsafe working conditions. Weeks later – just a day after her roommate died from COVID-19 – her employer picked up Flores from the dormitory where the workers lived.

He was told that he and three others suspected of speaking to the press were fired.

They told Flores that they would “send [him] back to Mexico at dawn, ”he said.

These allegations, which the farm in question denies, are described in an 8-page legal complaint to the Ontario Labor Relations Board and in a letter Flores delivered this week to the office of Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino. in downtown Toronto.

The complaint alleges that Flores’ job was unfairly dismissed in retaliation against her for speaking out about the poor working conditions her employer subjected her to. As part of his complaint, Flores seeks $ 28,000 in damages for direct and future loss of income, as well as $ 10,000 for the emotional pain and suffering he endured.

Flores and the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) held a press conference on Thursday to let the public know that Flores’ experience is one of many.

And they are sounding the alarm bells in the hope that the federal government will hear them.

“We are here because we are calling on the federal government of Canada to grant full and permanent immigration status to all,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of MWAC, at the press conference.

“Migrant workers want to protect their health, want to protect their safety, but it’s the federal immigration rules that prevent them from doing that.”

So far, three migrant workers have died from COVID-19 in Canada, Hussan said, and 1,100 are sick.

One of those deaths was Juan Lopez Chapparo, a 55-year-old father who worked and lived with Flores.

During the pandemic, the farms where many of these migrant workers were employed were declared essential, and migrant workers were allowed to enter the country even when borders were closed to others.

But because seasonal migrant workers have such a precarious status in the country, it is more difficult for them to stand up to employers who take advantage of them or subject them to unfair working conditions, according to the MWAC – a reality that the pandemic has brought about. made even more dangerous.

Flores was in Canada on a restricted work permit, which meant that his ability to stay in Canada was entirely tied to the specific employer he had traveled to Canada with to work.

“One in 23 people in this country – or 1.6 million people in the country – does not have permanent immigration status, does not have access to basic health care, does not have access to a basic work and is returned when speaking. ”Hussan said.

Flores is 36 years old and is from Mexico City. He started traveling to Canada for seasonal work in 2014 and has worked four seasons in the country.

This year he arrived in April to work on an asparagus farm in Norfolk Country owned by the Scotlynn Group.

According to Flores’ letter, which he read at the press conference, when they arrived at the farm, they found housing conditions cramped and unsanitary.

“There was very little space in the room and in the houses,” he said. “It was impossible to stay distant.”

He added that protective gear such as face masks or hand sanitizer was not provided to workers.

Then people started showing symptoms of COVID-19, including one of Flores’s roommates: Chapparo.

The workers told the foreman there were sick people, said Flores, “and asked them for medical attention.

“They ignored us.

Employers only started paying attention to the outbreak when an ambulance had to be called for a critically ill worker, according to Flores.

By the time the workforce was tested, 199 out of 221 workers had already contracted the virus and tested positive.

Flores was among them.

He was horrified by what had happened on the farm and by the working conditions he and his colleagues had been subjected to. So, as he went through his second 40s, he spoke anonymously to news organizations about the epidemic and labor exploitation, in order to shed light on the mistreatment that migrant workers face during this pandemic.

When the allegations surfaced, Scott Biddle, president and CEO of Scotlynn Group, denied them, telling CTV News in early June that workers were immediately taken to hospital for assessments when they fell ill. .

After Flores returned to work, he said that even after the outbreak “conditions had hardly changed.”

On June 20, Flores and her colleagues learned the tragic news that Chapparo had died from COVID-19.

They were “shocked,” he said. “It left us very saddened and also scared [for] our lives.

“I told the foreman that the farm should take responsibility for what happened,” Flores said. “Perhaps Juan’s death and this illness could have been avoided if they had paid attention to us when we asked for help.

Flores alleges that the next day Biddle’s father, Robert Biddle Jr., fired him after accusing him of speaking to the media and threatening him with deportation.

“Sir. Flores was fired as a sign, ”Hussan said. “As a symbol of employers and federal immigration laws, if you speak out in this country you can become homeless, you can be deported.”

Scotlynn Group declined an on-camera interview with CTV News, but said Flores’ claims were “totally untrue” and that Flores had “never been fired from the company or threatened with eviction.”

The prospect of being deported was frightening for Flores, who works in Canada to provide for her family. Back home, he has a wife, two daughters and a disabled mother, who recently had major surgery for which the family still owes money.

It was then that he contacted MWAC for help and temporary accommodation.

“My story is that of many others,” he said. “What happened to me can and does happen to many migrant workers.”

He calls for a “comprehensive immigration solution

“We spend most of the year in Canada, more time than we spend at home with our families. We are an essential part of this economy and society, and we deserve the same rights. ”

Many Canadians agree that things need to change. Already, more than 10,000 have signed an online petition demanding permanent status for the farm workers who put food on our tables.

With files from CTV News’s Molly Thomas

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