Offshore workers employed at Niagara-on-the-Lake farms were among the more than 3,000 farm workers vaccinated by Niagara Health this weekend.
In an interview on Cogeco YourTV’s The Source program this week, migrant workers’ advocate and regular NOTL Local contributor Jane Andres expressed relief that most of the workers were happy to receive their vaccines.
“This year has been a bit of an unusual one,” the founder of Niagara Workers Welcome told The Source. “Normally we don’t really have the chance to talk. We might chat in line at the airport, and the next day they go to work. But this year, with the quarantine, they all have time to talk and try to get answers. I’ve been on the phone non-stop for about three weeks.”
The avalanche of information and misinformation about the vaccination process was the topic of a lot of those conversations.
“There’s so many Canadians even, right in my own neighbourhood, who aren’t getting the vaccine and aren’t wearing masks,” Andres said. “It (opinions about the vaccine) did vary from farm to farm initially. But as communication has improved, it got better.”
Andres pointed to confusion about the rules for the offshore workers in relation to the vaccine. “Many were under the impression that they had no choice but to get vaccinated, or that they would be sent home if they didn’t get it. So there was a lot of fear and anxiety over that.”
Add to that their experience last year, arriving in spring just after the first wave of the pandemic had hit, and the fact that Ontario farms were hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020. Nearly 1,800 offshore workers were infected with the virus, with three losing their lives in Norfolk County. Fear and anxiety had to have been expected.
Agricultural workers were added to the list of those essential workers eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in part two of the province’s vaccine rollout announced in March. Earlier this month, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji assured the region’s seasonal workers that they were being offered a vaccination as a benefit to their employment in Niagara, not as a requirement.
Despite that fact, the confusion continued. So Andres turned to Jamaican-born Zephie James, who lives in Niagara Falls and operates a restaurant with his wife Charmaine. Andres met James a few years ago when the couple was living in Toronto.
“When he moved to Niagara,” explained Andres, “I brought him around on a local farm tour, and he really hit it off with the guys. They shared some real chemistry, and that is how he ended up performing and cooking for the 2017 Peach Pickers Picnic. He was a real hit with the farm workers.”
James received his own vaccination about a month ago. He felt it was his duty to get the message out to his fellow countrymen to get vaccinated.
In the meantime, Andres had been contacted by Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers for ideas on how to best reach Niagara’s agricultural workers to promote the vaccine.
“I decided to get the message out there with Zephie,” she continued. “Since he is a voice they trust, and a great memory from the picnic, he would leave them with a positive impression. We recorded a video. The favourite song we always closed the night with was Hot Hot Hot, so I just changed it to Get the Shot Shot Shot. “
She sent out the video via What’s App and Facebook, and it had the desired effect amongst the Jamaicans and Mexicans working on Niagara’s farms.
James has also been spreading the word back home. He told The Source, “I made a couple of calls to my friends in Jamaica and I got the same reaction, ‘Mr. James, I’m not going to take the vaccine’. So I told them ‘come on, we’ve been here before. We all had vaccines when we were kids. This is just another step up the line. You gotta go ahead and get it’.”
Data from the weekend provided by Niagara Health shows that 3,019 offshore workers were vaccinated on April 24 and 25 from 171 farms, bringing the total to 3,335.
Andres sees the weekend as a big success, but admits there is still a lot to do to protect the seasonal workers who are so important to the country’s food supply.
“What happened last year has forced people to recognize what is happening at farms not only in Niagara but across Canada,” she said. “It’s really highlighted that this is a federal program, and the federal regulations need to be standard across the country. Right now, they vary from municipality to municipality. The restrictions for quarantine for Norfolk were ridiculous (in 2020) and put a lot more hardship on the farmers, with a maximum of only three per bunkhouse.”
She continued, “the government was making lots of sweeping changes without consulting farm workers or their employers. The farm workers are still not being heard, and there is some concern amongst them that they will soon have to be vaccinated when they arrive at the airport. That is a really poorly-made decision on the part of the government. They have no idea what the Mexican and Caribbean workers go through to get here.”