In a pandemic first, the southern Ontario farm where a massive COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a migrant worker and sickened scores more is facing prosecution for a raft of alleged workplace safety violations.
Scotlynn Growers and proprietor Scott Biddle are charged with 20 offences that allegedly occurred last year, when about 200 migrant workers tested positive for the virus.
Amongst them was 55-year-old Juan Lopez Chaparro, who died from COVID-19 following the Scotlynn outbreak in June 2020. He left behind four children in Mexico, as well as his widow, who says there are “no words” to describe losing him.
“Juan was a tremendous person as a friend, brother, husband and father,” his wife Agustina Galindo Segundo told the Star from Mexico in an emailed response to questions. “He never tried to cause trouble and would always do his best to help others.”
“We have tried to move forward because he would not have wanted us to fall apart. But since he left us, everything has changed in our family.”
Scotlynn’s 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, according to the list of charges obtained by the Star.
It is the first COVID-related prosecution of an employer under occupational health and safety laws, labour ministry spokesperson Kalem McSween confirmed.
Biddle, who is charged with 11 counts of alleged workplace safety violations as a “director and/or officer” of the farm, said he was currently working from Scotlynn’s U.S. office and was not aware of the matter.
“I have no comment,” he said Monday.
In an interview with the Star last year, not long after the outbreak and Chaparro’s death, Biddle said his Norfolk County farm assiduously followed outbreak protocols including providing adequate personal protective equipment and housing.
“These guys, they’re front-line workers, they’re out there working in the fields, providing food for all of us in Canada, and putting their lives at risk. I mean, it’s very unfortunate what happened to us,” Biddle said at the time.
Critics say migrant workers were particularly vulnerable because of long-standing inequities — and inaction. Without systemic change, including permanent immigration status, workers “will continue to get sick and injured, face threats of deportation, and lose their lives,” said Karen Cocq of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
Chaparro, who was from just outside Mexico City, spent several weeks in a southwestern Ontario hospital battling the virus. He died not long after celebrating his 26th wedding anniversary. After his death, his bunkmate Gabriel Flores Flores was terminated for raising health and safety concerns about the outbreak at Scotlynn, leading him to flee the farm with the help of a friend, according to a recent labour board ruling.
The labour board found the farm’s actions constituted a reprisal, and Scotlynn was ordered to pay damages and lost wages to Flores.
Flores said he was happy the new charges would shed light on the circumstances surrounding Chaparro’s death — including the alleged lack of timely medical attention, poor living conditions, and the way workers were treated.
But more action is needed, Flores said.
“The most important change would be to give workers full (immigration) status immediately. That is the only way we will be able to leave bad jobs and demand the respect and equality we deserve.”
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Court records show the health and safety charges laid this month date back to alleged offences that occurred between May to August last year, around the time of Scotlynn’s outbreak.
In addition to the alleged failure to isolate symptomatic workers and follow masking protocols, the farm “failed to take the reasonable precaution of providing workers in the fields with reasonable access to hand hygiene facilities” or hand sanitizer, the charges claim.
A second set of charges against Scotlynn and Biddle claim lapses also occurred in October — 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, a Norfolk County spokesperson said.
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.
It is not the first time reports of poor living and working conditions have surfaced at the farm. As previously revealed by the Star, Mexican authorities received 33 complaints about Scotlynn from migrant workers between 2016 and 2018 — the most made about any one Canadian farm during that period. The complaints included allegations of pest infestations, overcrowding, and failure to receive timely medical attention.
Separately, 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.
Meanwhile, Cocq said Scotlynn has “continued to generate millions in profit off the backs of migrant workers.”
“This proves that the system cannot work, because the laws it enforces deny migrants the power to assert their rights because of their temporary immigration status,” she said.
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.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour launched a proactive health and safety inspection blitz on Ontario farms; inspectors have made 380 field visits in the agricultural services sector and 414 visits to farms, spokesperson McSween said.
While nothing can replace Chaparro, his wife said the family has “tried to follow his example and do our best to survive and keep going.”
But the pain, his wife said, is enduring.
“When you lose a loved one without the chance to say goodbye, it will hurt forever.”
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour-related issues for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe