Amid pandemic panic, people and businesses in town have been taking extra measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but a few businesses have been doing so in ways that constitute racial profiling of seasonal farm workers, The Lake Report has learned.
The newspaper has received multiple reports of incidents of profiling and some businesses telling migrant workers they aren’t welcome. There also have been several postings on NOTL social media pages both questioning the appearance of migrant workers in town and followup posts defending workers and criticizing those who made comments about workers.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she had not heard about any mistreatment of farm workers by businesses, but Coun. Erwin Wiens said he is aware of two incidents of racial profiling in town.
Wiens, who employs seasonal workers on his farm, said simply not allowing migrant workers into a store is unacceptable and the solution lies in education – for businesses, the public and farmworkers.
Disero and some prominent business leaders have issued statements on social media cautioning residents not to jump to conclusions when they see a migrant worker in town – and to treat them respectfully.
The profiling incidents all happened in late March and early April, long before the main wave of seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean started arriving in Niagara.
Simon Black, an assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University, said the incidents aren’t surprising, but that people should know such actions violate Canada’s human rights code.
“Migrant farmworkers in Niagara experience racism during times when there’s not a pandemic, so the fact that there’s racial profiling now in a time of heightened xenophobia and anxiety around a global pandemic is not at all surprising,” Black said in an interview Saturday.
“If there are businesses in Niagara-on-the-Lake which are refusing to serve migrant workers, then that is a violation of the entire human rights code. I mean that constitutes racial profiling.”
Wiens said people who might be worried should just ask when the workers have arrived. “The same way I would ask questions of anybody, if I saw a deep, deep tan on a friend of mine, I’d be like, ‘Hang on a sec, where did that tan come from?’”
“It’s a two-fold issue,” Wiens said. “One thing is that everybody now, farmworkers included, have to understand social distancing and that we have to work together so that we don’t send busloads of guys to the bank or to the Valu-mart.”
“But the other thing is understanding that once they’ve gone through the quarantine or the self-isolation, there is going to be one or two people coming who are going to be getting big orders, because they’re going to be getting orders for six or seven guys. So, they’re not hoarding. So we have to all work together to understand to do what’s best for everybody,” he said.
“I’m confident that we can get through all of these things with proper education and proper knowledge,” he said.
One source, whom The Lake Report agreed not to name, said she witnessed an incident at an Old Town store two weeks ago, during which an employee tried to enforce what she called a “management policy” that farmworkers couldn’t shop in the store. According to the witness, the migrant worker had already been in the country for several weeks and gone through isolation procedures.
That policy has since been rescinded, but the witness called the scene “heartbreaking.”
“The employee was trying to write him a letter to give to his employer to let them know that (the) manager had in fact made the decision not to serve any migrant workers,” the witness said.
She said the migrant worker didn’t speak English, but coincidentally a woman who speaks Spanish was in the store and able to communicate the message to him.
“It ended up being that this person had been back in the country over a month, and had been working and gone through all of the policies and procedures,” she said.
The witness called a local grower shortly afterward to express her concerns.
“There needs to be more done on the community’s part to protect them if they have gone through all of the self-isolating scenarios. But, I mean, to go into a store, not be able to speak English and be refused service is just terrible.”
She said the man, who had a mask on, finally ended up getting served. She hopes other stores in town will not try to implement similar policies that violate human rights out of fear.
“We’re all terrified and I get it, but they’re choosing to stay open, and if they need to adjust their protocols to be able to serve the public, then do that. Don’t just refuse service.”
Black said this should be a time to advocate for migrant workers, not a time to divide the community.
“If you look at the importance of migrant workers to the Niagara economy — $1.4 billion I think the GDP impact from agriculture in the Niagara region — without migrant workers there is no agricultural economy in the region, full stop,” he said.
“This is a moment in which you have an already vulnerable work force who is coming into the country. You have a federal government and local health authorities which have not adequately planned to provide adequate access to health care for migrant workers in the context of this pandemic,” he said.
“So you have a moment in which residents of Niagara and the Niagara-on-the-Lake community could be advocating for these workers who are so central to the well-being of the local economy. And it’s unfortunate that some residents have turned — whether through fear or whether just through outright racial bias or discrimination — to engaging in … racially profiling these workers.”
He said employers operating farms, greenhouses or wineries should be speaking out on behalf of their workers if they hear about racial discrimination.
“If there are workers who, through the seasonal agricultural worker program, are there on your farm — who are contributing to the local economy, who are essential to your business, then you need to be advocating for them. And if those workers are experiencing racial profiling when they’re downtown in Niagara-on-the-Lake, then those employers should be calling the Ontario Human Rights Commission to investigate.”
Black said his hope is for people in Niagara to “recognize how essential (migrant) workers are to our local economy.”
These workers are vulnerable, he said, and it’s not the time to allow “fear to turn us against each other” but instead to “take the time to advocate for these workers who are so essential to that economy, and when these workers experience racial profiling or racism, to call that out amongst our community members.”
The witness to the store incident said she’d like to see stores and farmers work together so store employees know if a worker has been through isolation.
She suggested one way for farmworkers perhaps to show they’ve quarantined is for farmers to provide cards that say, “Yes, I’ve passed quarantine.”
“Put different protocols in place in place as opposed to just saying, ‘You’re not of whatever variety of person. I’m not serving you,’ ” she said.
With many snowbirds returning – and several reports of some of them not self-isolationg – it’s possible someone who lives in town is visiting stores and spreading the virus.
“There’s people that have travelled back from Italy and Spain and Florida and everywhere else to come back to Canada that are walking around, but because they’re of this country nobody questions them? That’s absolutely ridiculous … Either stay closed or put protocols in place where you can serve the public, and all of the public, not who you deem to not be eligible for service,” she said.
She commended the farmers going to great lengths to do shopping for their employees.
Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) has put out information to help employers, Wiens said, “so that we don’t have three or four or five guys going to the Avondale.”
He said one person should do the shopping for a group of workers on the farm.
“(They need to) go and pick up five phone cards or pick up enough for everybody. We can’t have everybody going together because it is a whole new world order right now.”
While banning all farmworkers is “not acceptable,” Wiens added, “I’m going to give a lot of leeway in these times of stress that people might say inadvertent things or they may misunderstand.”
Retail workers are on the front lines and they’re going home to families, “so they’re concerned too. So we have to work together. We don’t want to see people discriminated against but at the same time I understand where the front-line workers are concerned with these things,” he said.
Education is essential because “pointing fingers and fighting right now (won’t work). We cannot divide,” Wiens said. “This is all for one and one for all.”