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Local Journalism Initiative

“I want to spend time with my kids on Christmas”: Pandemic could keep more than 100 Trinidadian farm workers trapped in Norfolk for the holidays

More than 100 farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago could be stuck in Norfolk County for Christmas because their government will not let them come home. Canada’s rising COVID-19 numbers have Trinidadian authorities reluctant to issue travel exemptions for seasonal workers looking to cross the Caribbean nation’s closed border. That leaves workers shivering through the start of winter while wondering how long the money they made this season will last. “Everybody is complaining to the minister of security right now, because people’s contracts are done and they can’t go home,” said Anthony, a farm worker in Norfolk. “The problem, really and truly, is back in Trinidad, since Canada is willing to allow us to go back home.” The Spectator is not naming the workers interviewed for this story, who fear that criticizing their government will jeopardize their spot in the Season Agricultural Worker Program next year. The workers’ names have been changed. Patricia said she can appreciate her government’s focus on keeping COVID-19 under control. “I know it’s been a bumpy road this year, but the less people they bring back into the country, the less chances of corona to spread very quickly, right?” she said. “Thus far, that is what the Trinidad government is trying to do.” But being in limbo is tough, especially for workers like David, who faces the prospect of being away from his young children over the holidays. “The experience over here would be nice, but the experience would’ve been nice if it is with family. I want to spend time with my kids on Christmas,” said David, who landed in Canada in January to start an eight-month contract. “And we’re still here,” he said, listing off six separate flights home that were booked and then postponed. “When it is we’re getting news that we’re expecting to go, we call our family and we’re telling them we’re coming home. They’re getting their hopes up, they’re getting excited,” he said. “When you call the family and tell them you can’t come, it’s depressing.” Since returnees from a high-risk country like Canada must quarantine in a hotel for seven days, even if the workers are allowed to leave later this month, there is no guarantee they will be with their families on Christmas Day. There is another issue, David added. “If it is we’re stuck here for Christmas, everybody will be basically broke,” he said.  “The majority of my money I send home because I have bills to pay back home, I have loans to pay back home, and I have my family to see about. The house still had to run.” He used what little money was left over to buy gifts for his family before what was supposed to be his return flight in September. “Right now, I only have 20 dollars,” David said. “Twenty dollars ain’t going to give you a lot of groceries.” Anthony is grateful his employer is letting workers stay on the farm for free. But he is frustrated that he’s shelling out for a parka and winter boots. “You’re supposed to take care of your family,” he said. “(But) you need to live, so you end up spending the money you worked for.” Waiting for answers The local health unit and FARMS — the federal agency in charge of the farm worker program — are trying to find answers for the stranded workers and their employers. “I am very concerned that these people’s return home is being delayed by these administrative rules related to COVID-19,” said Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer of health, who noted that repatriating farm workers is a federal responsibility.  “We have had dialogue with consular officials and have articulated our perspective on how safe repatriation can be effectuated,” he said, adding that the Trinidadian government requires returning citizens to test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of departure. Trinidad’s point person for farm workers in Canada is Eric Poliah from the country’s labour ministry. Poliah is the labour consul in Canada attached to the farm worker program. When reached by The Spectator, Poliah referred all questions to Trinidad’s permanent secretary of labour, Natalie Willis. The labour ministry did not respond to interview requests for this story. While they wait for news, farmers are making do. Mike Bouw, a Delhi-area tobacco farmer, brought in electric heaters and extra blankets for the seven Trinidadians living in a bunkhouse not built for the cold. “It’s fine for how the weather’s been lately, but it’s not made for true Canadian winter when you start averaging minus-10 every day,” Bouw said. “I’ve never had guys through the winter. They’re usually home in October.” Bouw provides free WiFi in the bunkhouse, which lets workers keep in touch with their loved ones and stream videos to pass the time. They can also borrow the farm truck to head into town for groceries and a change of scene. “I just really feel awful for these guys. The spirits are pretty low these days. They just want to get home to their families,” Bouw said.  A late-season frost ruined much of Bouw’s tobacco crop, making it even more difficult to absorb the extra cost of housing his workers well beyond their scheduled departure date.  “Any little bit of profit we would have had is long gone,” Bouw said.  “But forget about me — for the guys, that took two, three weeks of labour away from what they would normally have (earned) harvesting out in the field, and the guys in the barn that are baling and stripping and grading the tobacco. So these guys are short of money, I’m short of money, and now we’re playing the waiting game.” As one of the main employers of Trinidadian farm workers in Canada, Simcoe fruit farmer Brett Schuyler is providing free housing for approximately 100 men and women from the island. The bunkhouses at Schuyler Farms are winterized, and Schuyler is prepared for the long haul. “There’s no option for flights right now,” he said. “I’m planning on everybody being here for the entire winter.” Schuyler had some workers out pruning branches on apple trees and doing odd jobs to get them some more income. But with the snow falling and their work visas due to expire on Dec. 15, those opportunities are growing scarce.  However, Schuyler said he is “very confident” Service Canada will find a way to extend workers’ visas or make other arrangements so they can continue to collect unemployment insurance. As for whether the federal government will help farmers with their unexpected housing costs, there has been no news yet. “I’ve reminded (Ottawa) of that. We’re housing close to 100 people for free,” Schuyler said. “And we’re not complaining about that. Thank goodness we have housing that’s suitable.” Several workers told The Spectator they would welcome donations of grocery gift cards to help tide them over. Schuyler said interested community members can mail gift cards to the farm or send e-transfers to victoria@schuylerfarms.ca. Bouw said Norfolk residents offered “overwhelming” support for his workers once he went public with their plight in October. “People have been really, really generous,” he said. “Would donations help? Sure, but they’re proud guys. They work for their money and they want to take care of themselves … They just want to go home.” Uncertainty for next season There are rumours of flights to Trinidad scheduled for mid-December, but after so many false starts, the workers say they will believe they are leaving when they board the plane.  Should they make it home, they are concerned that being forced to cool their heels in Canada will not leave them enough time to get their medical and criminal checks in order to reapply to the farm program. “We’re not sure what will happen for next year. This is the work people are depending on to make a living, take care of their families, and pay bills,” said Anthony, who had been planning to come back to Canada to take advantage of the financial windfall the program represents compared to the tight job market in Trinidad. “That’s what I was thinking, but the way things are going now, I doubt I will be able to come back in January,” he said. “Imagine how many people like me are in this position. What are they going to do next year?” David says he is “disappointed” to still be in Canada after a difficult season on the farm. “Everybody’s going through the same thing. They have their family, they have their friends, they have everybody expecting them to be back home,” he said. “They locked down the country, yes, we understand that. But they should have put things in place for us to come back.” If it ends up that there seven extra people at his farm this Christmas, Bouw said he and his wife will make it as happy a holiday as can be. “Obviously, we’re going to take care of them and treat them as best we can as part of our farm family,” he said.  “But I hope it doesn’t get to that point. I want them to be home with their families for Christmas. That is what needs to happen. I don’t know who needs to do what, but we need to get these guys back.”J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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