Employer charged with failure to protect 200 farmworkers from COVID-19

Gabriel Flores Flores blew the whistle on how his friend died

SCOTT BIDDLE IS ACCUSED of putting workers on his farms in harms way. It’s not a first for Biddle. But it is for Ontario: it is the first time any Ontario employer has faced prosecution for failure to provide workers adequate protections from COVID-19.

Biddle owns and runs Scotlynn Growers, a huge vegetable farming operation in southern Ontario. The farm was the site of a massive COVID-19 outbreak last year: over 200 migrant workers were infected; one worker died. The farm and Biddle are charged with 20 alleged workplace safety violations relating to the outbreak.

Migrant workers highly vulnerable

The alleged violations include failing to isolate workers with COVID symptoms, failing to follow masking and disinfection protocols, and failing to provide adequate information and training.

Scotlynn fired a worker who blew the whistle on conditions at the farm, after his bunkmate 55-year-old Juan Lopez Chaparro died from the virus last year. The labour board found the farm’s actions constituted a reprisal, and Scotlynn was ordered to pay damages and lost wages to the whistleblower.

Karen Cocq is an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for change. She says that the COVID-19 charges are just one more glaring example of how exposed and vulnerable migrant workers are. She says that without complete systemic change, including permanent immigration status, workers “will continue to get sick and injured, face threats of deportation, and lose their lives.”

More charges pending

A second set of charges against Scotlynn and Biddle claim lapses also occurred in October 2020—several months after Chaparro’s death. In those charges, Scotlynn and Biddle are accused of keeping parts of the business open contrary to lockdown regulations, as well as allegedly again failing to provide workers with masks when required.

When factoring in the second set of charges, Scotlynn and Biddle face 27 counts of breaking the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Reopening of Ontario Act. The matters are currently before provincial offences court.

Prosecutions under provincial workplace safety laws typically take several months to initiate. Individuals can face up to a year of jail time and a $100,000 fine, while corporations face a maximum penalty of up to $1.5 million per charge.

Maximum fines under pandemic emergency laws range up to $100,000 for individuals, with possible jail time, and $10 million for a corporation.

Scotlynn, a multimillion dollar operation, describes itself as “North America’s Farm Stand” and also runs a transportation company with networks throughout the United States.

Five dead; 2500 infected

Scotlynn was fined $7,000 by the federal government earlier this year for legal violations related to “hiring and recruiting employees,” according to a public database of non-compliant employers of temporary foreign workers.

Chaparro was one of three migrant workers who died of COVID-19 last year, after massive farm outbreaks swept the province. In total, over 2,500 farm workers in Ontario have fallen ill with COVID-19, according to workers’ compensation statistics. This year, at least five migrant workers have died in quarantine.

“It’s time this new government does what the last government never did — give full and permanent immigration status to all migrants to ensure equal rights for the people that have sustained our communities during the pandemic,” said Cocq.

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