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Labour + Industry

This Growing Season in BC Is Proving Difficult and Dangerous

Migrant workers and farmers contend with the challenges COVID-19 brings.

Ainslie Cruickshank 15 May

Ainslie Cruickshank is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. She has written for the Toronto Star, The Narwhal, and Canada’s National Observer, among other publications.

As B.C. begins the slow process of reopening the economy, thousands of migrant workers, and the farmers who depend on them every year, remain in limbo.

While the federal government, after weeks of negotiations with farmers, made an exception allowing migrant workers through the closed Canada-U.S. border, many have not yet been able to come to Canada.

It’s very stressful, said one man we’ll call Javier, who for more than a decade has travelled each spring from his small community in Mexico to work on a farm in B.C.

This year, he had planned to start work in April at a blueberry and cranberry farm in Metro Vancouver. Now, he doesn’t know if — or when — he’ll make it to Canada.

If he is able to come, he worries he could become sick.

The Tyee interviewed two temporary foreign workers about their concerns working during the pandemic, one already on the job in B.C., and one still hoping he’ll get the chance to work this season. They said they depend on the wages they can earn here but worry about what will happen if they become infected. For both, we used pseudonyms because they did not have permission from their employers to speak to reporters.

The federal and provincial governments have released guidelines for employers who hire temporary foreign workers in the midst of the pandemic, including requirements for a two-week quarantine and, in B.C., guidance that beds should be at least two metres apart or, if that’s not possible, have curtains installed between them. But migrant workers advocates worry there’s not enough being done to ensure workers have adequate housing.

There has already been one outbreak among temporary foreign workers in B.C., which began in late March and was declared over by public health officials earlier this week, at Bylands Nurseries in Kelowna.

Dozens of workers have also tested positive for COVID-19 in a growing outbreak at a greenhouse operation in southwestern Ontario.

The workers at Bylands are in “good housing accommodations, which provide space for individuals to be self-isolated safely,” Interior Health said in late March.

But with longstanding concerns about crowded living conditions at farms across the country, migrant worker advocates worry there could more outbreaks to come.

Natalia Sudeyko, a volunteer technical advisor with the Dignidad Migrante Society, who translated phone interviews with workers for The Tyee, was in Mexico on holiday when she first heard talk about the unprecedented border closure.

Her immediate concern was for the workers who were planning to come to B.C. this season.

“For most workers it is the only income that they have throughout the year and they are often the sole breadwinner for their families,” she said.

A complete shutdown of temporary foreign worker programs could have had significant consequences for farmers as well, as migrant workers are often among the most experienced agricultural workers on Canadian farms.

In a typical year, about 10,000 seasonal migrant farm workers are employed in B.C. — the berry industry alone relies on roughly 2,300 of these workers every season.

So far, more than 1,500 temporary foreign workers for the entire sector have arrived in B.C. and either completed their 14-day isolation or are currently in isolation. Eight of those workers tested positive for COVID-19, seven of whom have since been cleared.

Ultimately, B.C. expects to see about 6,000 seasonal migrant farm workers this year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, but logistics around their arrival have yet to be finalized.

In just two months, early blueberries on hundreds of farms from the coastal city of Delta to the eastern edge of the Fraser Valley will be ripe and ready for picking.

Blueberries, a "superfood" worth millions to B.C.’s economy, were the province’s third largest agri-food export in 2018.

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Westberry Farms owner Parm Bains checks his staff’s work in his organic blueberry fields (top). Signs warning of COVID-19 restrictions are posted outside the Westberry offiice. Photos for The Tyee by Jesse Winter.

But some growers worry they may have to abandon at least part of this year’s crop to rot thanks to the pile-on effect of a collapsing economy, additional costs and labour shortages.

Rhonda Driediger, vice-president of the BC Agriculture Council and owner of a berry farm in Langley, said there simply aren’t enough Canadians to fill these jobs.

“The nature of the work is just not something that the average Canadian wants to do anymore. Anybody who does want to work in agriculture, already works in agriculture,” she said.

Temporary foreign workers have another advantage as well, she said: their experience year after year.

“If you have a constantly rotating labour force, you’re constantly training, constantly trying to supervise, it’s just such a huge management challenge,” she said.

For seasonal farm workers whose paperwork wasn’t finalized before offices and storefronts around the world began shutting down, there is still a lot of uncertainty about if or when they’ll be able to travel to Canada.

The worker we call Javier, who is still in Mexico, said he’s worried about missing out on a whole season of work and the income that would typically support his family for the entire year.

While not the case at the farm in Kelowna, migrant agricultural workers often live in crowded housing where social distancing can be challenging, if not impossible, said Sudeyko.

It’s not uncommon for four to six workers to sleep in bunk beds in the same room, she said.

When Javier first started going to the farm he hopes to return to this year, the living conditions were far from ideal, he said. There was no heat, which meant the nights were cold in the fall. Since then the farmer has modernized the housing, but Javier said some workers still share rooms with their co-workers and sleep in bunk beds.

Raymundo Ramirez Galvez, from Oaxaca, Mexico, cuts weeds in the blueberry fields of Westberry Farms. Temporary foreign workers coming into Canada must quarantine for 14 days. BC funds hotel and food costs for them to isolate in the Lower Mainland. Photo for The Tyee by Jesse Winter.

Migrant worker advocacy groups have for years been calling for better living conditions for the people who come to Canada every season to help grow and harvest the food we eat.

Just because workers come from another country doesn’t mean they should be jammed in a room with five other people in bunk beds, said Jenna Hennebry, co-founder of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“That’s just not acceptable,” she said.

In early April, Hennebry and five other experts put together a list of recommendations for the federal government regarding migrant agricultural worker programs during the pandemic.

They urged that farms bringing in migrant works must prove they have adequate housing to support them safely before the workers arrive.

Driediger said in B.C., farms already required to do that. This year, there’s an additional inspection, including of housing, to ensure the guidelines on COVID-19 are being followed before workers arrive from quarantine, she added.

The inspections regime is leading to “fewer and fewer complaints every year,” Dreidiger said.

But Natalie Drolet, the executive director and staff lawyer with the Migrant Workers Centre, said there have been longstanding concerns about gaps in the inspection system — that there aren’t enough of them and that the inspections aren’t a surprise.

In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, all temporary foreign workers coming into Canada are required to quarantine for 14 days. In B.C., the province is funding hotel and food costs for workers to isolate in the Lower Mainland.

“It’s a good start, because what it does is recognize that the housing that currently exists does not enable physical distancing,” said Hennebry. “What it doesn’t do is say, ‘Huh, maybe we better be changing this housing because if it’s putting them in harm’s way now, it could continue to put them in harm’s way throughout the year while they are here.’”

B.C. farmers that employ temporary foreign workers must complete a workplace risk assessment, implement a plan to reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19, and train their employees about the farm’s safety protocols, physical distancing, and how to monitor and report any signs of illness.

They must also install handwashing stations in the fields and inside and outside all buildings in which their employees work or eat, according to provincial guidelines.

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BC migrant farm workers Carlos Bereal (top) and Adolfo Infante Pio are from Michoacán, Mexico. Concerns about crowded living conditions at farms across Canada have migrant worker advocates worried more outbreaks will come. Photos for The Tyee by Jesse Winter.

Parm Bains, who owns Westberry Farms, a 100-acre blueberry farm, and a processing facility in Abbotsford, said there’s “a lot more involved” in running the operation during a pandemic and a lot of uncertainty about how the season will go.

“Everything from… are we going to get our crop harvested and then is there going to be market demand for it,” said Bains.

He relies heavily on migrant agricultural workers particularly on the organic side of his farm, where “weeds are a challenge.” But so far, only about half of the 15 seasonal migrant workers he usually hires have arrived.

The cost of the seasonal agriculture work program is much higher this year. Flights for workers were double the price, he said, and employers are also required to pay workers at least 30 hours per week while they are in quarantine.

But, he added, fewer workers allows for more physical distancing in the living quarters.

Bains is also providing workers with personal protective gear, such as masks and gloves, and “going the extra mile” on cleaning.

“We’re going to have to hire one or two individuals that do nothing but sanitation,” he said, “Not once a day, but three or four times a day.”

On one of the first truly warm days this spring, Pablo Infante Pio wielded a weed whacker, deftly removing weeds along the rows of Westberry Farms’ organic berry fields.

His brother Adolfo, who was driving a small blue tractor, also works on the farm. Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, the brothers have been coming back to Westberry Farms for years.

All the workers The Tyee met wore masks, even inside the tractors. Large signs reading “COVID-19 Alert” were posted in the parking lot and outside the main office. A handwashing station with sanitizer and a box of disposable masks sat near the office door, along with a visitors’ log book and a survey asking about COVID-19 symptoms.

On a cranberry farm in Richmond, workers aren’t going into town for groceries in an effort to guard against the virus, according to Carlos, another seasonal farm worker from Mexico who The Tyee is referring to by a pseudonym. Instead they make lists and have the groceries delivered, he said.

Carlos, who arrived in February, shares an apartment with one other worker at the farm. When his co-workers arrived in March they had a meeting about the importance of physical distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of the virus.

Still, workers are concerned about getting sick, Carlos said.

Migrant workers come to Canada every year to do work farmers can’t find Canadians to do, he said, and it’s something that should be recognized.

In cranberries, some of the hardest work in the early season is preparing the land for seeding because the ground is very wet, Carlos said. He works 10 hours a day Monday to Saturday, no matter the weather and it is very physical work.

Carlos said he wants to see more services for temporary agricultural workers, including better health care.

Some employers are better than others, Carlos said, but there’s a concern among workers that if they get sick or injured they’ll be sent home.

Even if a worker isn’t sent home, Hennebry said access to health care can be a challenge.

Workers may not have access to their own transportation off the farm. Clinics, especially in rural areas, may not be open in the evenings when workers can get to town, and even if they are able to see a doctor or nurse, there may be a language barrier to contend with, she explained.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the extent to which our society depends on temporary foreign workers to grow our food and even to make sure that food reaches our shelves,” said Drolet.

“This is the time when the government should get more involved and do everything they can to ensure workers are protected at work,” she said.

With files from Jesse Winter.  [Tyee]

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