Jamaican farm workers head to US, Canada despite COVID-19 outbreak

By Jamaica Gleaner

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(JAMAICA GLEANER) — Despite the alarming rate at which lives are being lost to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in North America, Jamaicans are still willing to take the risk to participate in the seasonal overseas work programmes. However, this time they have to sign a waiver absolving the Government of any liability if they become infected with the potentially deadly respiratory disease.

Agreeing to the terms of the Instrument of Release and Discharge document, last week, several Jamaican farm workers left the island to travel to various parts of the COVID-19 hard-hit United States and Canada.

“The fact is, the employers wanted the workers and the workers were given a choice if they wanted to take up the offer at this time,” Colette Roberts Risden, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, told The Sunday Gleaner.

“It is an employment arrangement between the employer and the worker, and they have to get approval from the labour department in the United States in order to bring in foreign workers.”

She continued, “It is their job and they wanted to go. We don’t want to be in a position that we are preventing them from going and take up these opportunities of employment, but we outline to the worker the risk of going to work in those countries at this time. Some have decided to sit out this season, while others chose to go.”

According to the permanent secretary, the Instrument of Release and Discharge document that they have to sign serves to outline the risks involved in the decision taken by the workers.

“You cannot make a decision to go, despite knowing the risk, but expect that if anything happens to you someone else is responsible. We had to balance it,” she stated.

COVID-19 has been sweeping across the globe, with the United States among the hardest hit. The country now has approximately 278,458 COVID-19 cases, with some 7,159 deaths. An estimated 9,897 persons have recovered. Canada is faring better, with 12,360 infections, and 176 persons succumbing to the dreaded respiratory disease, while 2,177 Canadians have recovered.

OUR BREAD AND BUTTER

The spouse of one of the workers who left the island last week said they were cognisant of the risk, but the need for the income far outweighed fears of the pandemic.

“He is going for about 20 years now, and his boss treats him good. The farm work programme provides everything that we have; it is poor people bread and butter,” she told The Sunday Gleaner, wishing to remain anonymous for fear of stigmatisation.

“He was comfortable going, plus he is going to a rural area, so all they see for days is farmlands. So I am not worried, as long as we can keep in touch and he keeps himself safe. It is risky to go at this time but more than anything else, we have mouths to feed and bills to pay and there is no work in Jamaica, so all we going to do is pray that God protect them.”

According to the Instrument of Release and Discharge document seen by The Sunday Gleaner, the workers had to agree that they were responsible “for any cost, damages and/or loss that may occur or be incurred as a result of any exposure to said virus”.

However, opposition spokesman on labour, Horace Dalley, believes the move was ill-timed and an uncaring act by the ministry to send Jamaicans during this global public health crisis.

“I would not have sent any worker to Canada or the United States. I would have held back a little for a month or so, even though I know that some of these large farmers depend on the Jamaican workers,” Dalley said.

“This is disgraceful and lacks care in times like these. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour to do everything to protect the farm workers while they are overseas working, and this is utterly disgraceful.”

OWN FREE WILL

However, Lloyd Barnett, noted attorney-at-law, is of the view that the workers chose to go of their own free will, which was out of the hands of the Government.

“They would have gone on their own will; the Government did not send them. They would be recruited by a particular employer who would transport them,” Barnett stated.

“They want to go, and would have asked to be released from the travel restrictions, but the Government would have said, ‘I will release you, but we are not responsible … you are going on your own free will’.”

He reasoned, “Should the Government have allowed them to go? If they had not, then the Government would be interfering with their freedom of movement, justified or not. In this case, they wanted to go and the Government has permitted them to go because they expressed a desire to go.”

The US Embassy’s Facebook account confirmed the departure of the workers to the US farmlands on Thursday, stating: “With gratitude, we wish safe travels to this group of Jamaican H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers, who departed today for farms in the United States. Measures are being taken to ensure that proper health and safety protocols are fully observed to safeguard the agricultural workers, as together we fight against the spread of #COVID19. Their work directly supports global food security and shows why Jamaica and the United States is #GrowingTogether.”

However, there were mixed reactions to the post that was accompanied by images of the workers.

“Yes, we need the money but this is not wise with the increase in COVID-19 cases in the US,” Facebook user Nicky Nicky argued.

“Foolishness,” declared Nichola Eboney Wright. “You see what’s happening all over the world and you running to where it even more serious when hundreds are dying.”

Others just offered a word of prayer for the workers’ safety.

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