Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health is defending the local health unit’s issuance of identification cards to offshore workers.
In a conference call on May 11, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai said the workers understand the cards are voluntary, they do not have to be carried, they do not have a photograph, they do not have a serial number, and they do not have to be produced on demand.
Nesathurai added the cards are useful during a pandemic because many of the 4,500 migrant workers who come to Haldimand and Norfolk each year do not speak English.
The cards specify that the holder has served a mandatory 14-day quarantine and the date the quarantine began. The latter is especially useful, Nesathurai said, when local, provincial and federal health officials conduct farm inspections.
“Many migrant workers come from countries where English isn’t the first language,” he said. “They are voluntary. They are by no means required. They serve a convenient purpose.”
Nesathurai added the cards are issued as a courtesy and as something useful for offshore workers to carry whenever they need identification.
Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, Nesathurai said bylaw enforcement officers and police can demand that individuals in public places identify themselves. This can be a challenge for offshore workers, he added.
“When you come from overseas, many will only have a passport,” Nesathurai said. “That is a large document that you will want to secure.”
The “Migrant Farm Worker Identification Card” has space for the employee’s name, the farm the worker is attached to, the address of that farm, a phone number, and date of arrival.
The cards have stirred controversy on social media. Among those critical of the health unit initiative is Dusty Zamecnik of EZ Grow Farms in Langton, chair of Norfolk’s agricultural advisory board.
In a comment on social media, Zamecnik said the identification program is “so wrong on multiple levels.”
In an interview, Zamecnik said this includes the fact that Canadians returning from abroad after the pandemic alert were not issued identification cards with the start-date of their mandatory quarantine.
“Workers are clearly on a different playing field,” he said. “It’s blatant profiling.”
And – save for a failed initiative to quarantine migrant workers in hotels and motels during the 14-day isolation period – Zamecnik said the health unit pandemic team hasn’t reached out to the agricultural community for input on decisions that greatly impact the industry.
During the conference call, a reporter said the health unit document is reminiscent of “carding” – a police practice in some jurisdictions where officers randomly stop people in high-risk neighbourhoods and ask them to produce identification. The fact that filling out the cards and carrying them is voluntary, Nesathurai replied, is an important distinction.
Nesathurai says he’s sensitive to issues of stigma and bigotry.
He sees the identification cards as a convenience and public-health instrument at a time of pandemic illness and not racist. The bigotry and racism he worries about, the doctor said, involves disparaging attitudes toward skin colour and outward cultural expressions such as clothing.
For his part, Jason Burgess, CAO of Norfolk County, reached out on behalf of the employees he manages at the health unit.
Burgess is “disappointed” some suggest that the identification cards are evidence of racism.
He pointed out that three prominent members of the health unit’s pandemic task force are visible minorities. He also praised Nesathurai for being the only voice at the table that puts the health and well-being of offshore workers first.
“All the other arguments have been economic,” Burgess said.