They came to Canada as essential workers. Hundreds were infected with the coronavirus on the job

A temporary foreign worker from Mexico plants strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., Wednesday, May 6, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)

(CNN)Quarantined and alone in a Canadian hotel room, Alvaro was pensive and anxious. He said he wasn't so worried about testing positive for Covid-19, but about the paycheck he couldn't afford to lose.

"My family depends on me financially and as of right now I do not really know if they will pay us," said Alvaro, a father and temporary foreign worker from Mexico. CNN agreed not to publish his full name as he fears being punished by his employer.
Alvaro is one of at least 600 migrant farm workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 in Canada since arriving in the country in early spring. According to local health officials, most were infected in Canada and two have died -- revelations that suggest failings in the government's declared protocols to protect this vulnerable group of essential workers.
    When the coronavirus pandemic closed Canada's borders, the Trudeau government announced an important exception: a subsidy program that would allow foreign manual laborers to come into Canada before the growing season. In order to forestall any potential spread of infection, the government would pay for a two-week mandatory quarantine.
    But workers say their quarantines were poorly handled by some employers, with little or no government oversight, and risked exposing them to the deadly virus.
    In documents provided to CNN, at least three migrant workers described being kept in quarantine facilities that did not allow for social distancing, with crowded kitchens and bathrooms. One described arriving at a bunk house where there was no food supplied for the 14-day stay. He wrote to the federal government explaining he and others were forced to break quarantine and buy groceries in the community.
    Employers that CNN has spoken with said they arranged for hotel rooms and food to be provided immediately in quarantine. But even for workers who were able to quarantine safely, crowded living and working conditions nevertheless increased their exposure to the deadly virus, according to the local public health unit.
    "They came here, they self-isolated for two weeks and they picked it up since they've been here," said Doug Ford, premier of the hardest-hit Ontario Province on Monday. He added, "I don't want any finger pointing at these hard-working migrant workers. They're good people, they mean well, and they're hard workers too."

    Cheap communal housing: a perfect home for the coronavirus

    Alvaro worked for Scotlynn Group, a Norfolk county, Ontario produce company that grows a variety of vegetables. He said he tested positive for the virus in early June and has no idea how he was infected, but he described his living conditions in the employer-provided bunk house of a Scotlynn Group-owned farm "outrageous."
    Toilets and kitchens were communal, he said, and migrant workers slept 6 or 8 to a room, making it impossible to keep your distance.
    Canadian employers hire tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers every year through the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which ties temporary workers to a specific employer through their work visa. They rely on the employer for housing for which they pay a small amount. Alvaro, for example, pays 14 dollars every other week.
    In theory, employer-provided communal bunk houses allow temporary workers to save more money to send home to their families. But workers in the program have long voiced concerns and complaints about their housing, pay and working conditions. Now, as shown by the nine different agricultural outbreaks of the Covid-19 so far in the Windsor-Essex region, such housing also leaves them vulnerable to communicable diseases, including Covid-19.
    "Unfortunately, because of the way they are housed or what their accommodation looks like, they spread it to pretty much everyone who lives in the same house," Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex County, Ontario, told CNN.
    So far, 167 of the Scotlynn Group's 216 migrant workers have tested positive for Covid-19 in the last few weeks, with several admitted to hospital, according to Scott Biddle, the company's president and CEO.
    "This has been a tough time, that's for sure," said Biddle in an interview with CNN. He added that the majority of his employees who work in the field, planting, tending and picking, are temporary workers from Mexico.
    Biddle said his workers spent quarantine in a hotel, and described the conditions in his bunk houses as up to government guidelines. "Our accommodations meet or exceed all Canadian standards. They're all fairly new, built in the last 10 years," said Biddle.
    Accommodation for migrant workers in Ontario. Courtesy of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.