NORFOLK COUNTY — A southwestern Ontario vegetable farm is the first business in the province charged with violating workplace safety law in connection with a COVID-19 outbreak last summer before vaccines were available.
Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers was charged with 20 counts after a 55-year-old Mexican farm worker died of COVID-19 following an outbreak that infected about 200 workers.
Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, the non-profit organization that administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, told Farmers Forum he was “shocked” by the news but didn’t know any details of the Scotlynn case and couldn’t “defend either side.”
However, Forth observed: “How many nursing home operators have been charged? Hundreds of people died in those, and they’re businesses like everything else.”
He also expressed concern about looking at the events of more than a year ago — when the virus was less understood and vaccines didn’t exist — “through the eyes of September 2021.”
He added that even in a pandemic, migrant workers are not “sequestered” on the farms that employ them. “They can go wherever the hell they want, so where are we (as farmers) in that scenario?”
The vegetable farm faces 10 charges under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). Its owner Scott Biddle faces an additional 10 charges. The charges allege that the farm didn’t take “every precaution reasonable” to prevent infection in the migrant worker population employed at the farm 75 kilometers south of Hamilton.
The reports suggest the accused specifically fell short in ensuring workers wore masks, were protected behind barriers when not socially distanced, and had access to adequate hand hygiene facilities. It’s also alleged the farm failed to identify and exclude from the workplace those employees at higher likelihood of transmitting the virus between late June and early July 2020.
A Ministry of Labour spokesperson also confirmed for Farmers Forum that the farm was charged in April with an additional seven charges under the Reopening Ontario Act and the OHSA.
Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Chair Bill George declined comment when asked if he felt his industry had been targeted by the province, in light of the groundbreaking charges. “I can’t really comment on anything before the courts,” said George.
However, he observed that vaccinating temporary seasonal workers has been “a big help” to the industry.
Scotlynn Sweetpac Growers did not respond to a phone and email request for comment.
The company website recounts how it started as a “small family farm in the 90s” and grew into “one of Ontario’s largest farming operations” focused on sweetcorn, watermelon, pumpkins and asparagus. In 2012, the farm opened a U.S. division headquartered in Belle Glade, Florida.
If convicted, Scotlynn farm could face fines of up to $1.5-million.