Seasonal farm workers are arriving by the thousands in B.C. right now. They are met at the Vancouver airport and shuttled to hotels in Richmond, where everything from the language spoken on TV to the food is unfamiliar. Meals, which arrive three times a day, are among the few events that punctuate the day. Even the cost of a hotel soft drink — a welcome diversion from the monotony of quarantine — can feel exorbitant for someone arriving here to work.
While advocates applaud the province’s move to manage and fund the required two-week quarantine period, they say the pandemic has highlighted shortcomings in a system that already left migrant workers isolated and vulnerable.
“The food is the most problematic thing. They are getting the three meals, but the quantity and the quality are the main complaints,” says Byron Cruz, a member of Vancouver-based Sanctuary Health Collective, a grassroots organization that’s in communication with dozens of migrant farm workers in B.C.
“Especially for an agriculture migrant worker, they need to eat well. They have that diet because they work so hard.”
Last year, B.C. spent $17 million from April to December to house and feed agricultural workers quarantined under the federal government’s mandatory two-week isolation period. That number is expected to rise this year with more migrant workers entering the country, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says.
The move has taken pressure off employers and ensured a more consistent experience for workers, say organizations speaking on behalf of both migrants and employers. The workers have access to health care if needed and are offered vaccinations during their hotel stay.
It’s an improvement over other provinces where the responsibility of quarantining incoming workers is left to employers, leaving some vulnerable to COVID-19 due to cramped living conditions and barriers to accessing health care.
But challenges remain here in B.C., the advocates say.
Farm workers begin arriving in January to work in greenhouses. The majority come in spring, leaving families behind in places like Mexico, the Caribbean, Guatemala and Southeast Asia. They will work the fields, pick and pack fruits and vegetables, grow flowers and, for a smaller number, wrangle livestock.
These workers are essential to the province’s agriculture sector. But for those destined for rural farms, the jobs can be lonely and isolating, sequestering them in remote areas with limited transportation, and where few locals speak their language.
The pandemic has increased worker isolation and the risks they face, says Alejandro Lazzari with Vancouver-based Fuerza Migrante, which strives to advance the rights of migrant workers.
“When something like this emerges, where isolation is supposedly going to keep us safe, then that compounds that exploitive structure,” says Lazzari. “The primary objective has always been to ensure the profitability of the industry, not to ensure the health of the workers for making that industry possible.”
Most workers decline to speak out about rights violations — either directly to their employers or to media — for fear of losing their jobs.
Last year in Ontario, Mexican farm worker Luis Gabriel Flores Flores was fired when he spoke to media about crowded housing conditions that led to nearly 200 workers becoming infected with COVID-19. Flores was one of those infected, and his roommate died as a result of the virus.
Instead, The Tyee spoke with several rights groups who work closely with migrant farm workers. They all emphasize the collective nature of their work.
“It’s really more like allies and support people and friends,” says Amy Cohen with Okanagan-based Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture, or RAMA. In addition to connecting the workers with services, such as health care and legal advice, their role is to create community. Most years, that would mean hosting gatherings and creating opportunities to practise English language skills.
But the pandemic has created another layer of distance between migrant workers and the groups trying to support them.
Last spring, as the world was adjusting to the pandemic, the province announced a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursery in Kelowna, where 23 migrant workers tested positive for the virus.
Popham calls the outbreak “the canary in the coal mine.”
“We had to make a decision last year, really quickly, because we’re the first province that receives temporary foreign workers in a season,” Popham says. The province moved to take over the quarantine program, shouldering the cost without support from the federal government.
In an average year, the province’s farms employ as many as 11,000 temporary farm workers, according to Popham. The majority, about three-quarters, are here during the summer months. Last year, as the pandemic was taking hold, that number dropped to about 5,000. This year, it’s expected to increase again, with 4,386 having already arrived by the end of last week.
Of 5,000 migrant farm workers quarantined last year in B.C., 64 tested positive for COVID-19. All recovered and were placed on farms, Popham says.
This year has already surpassed that: Between Jan. 1 and May 6, 68 people tested positive in quarantine. One continued to convalesce in a hotel late last week.
“We realized that if these outbreaks started to happen on farms and processing facilities, the entire industry was going to get shut down,” Popham says about last year’s wake-up call.
For farmers trying to run a business, fear of an outbreak needed to be balanced with workers’ rights to access local services and amenities.
At times the restrictions infringed on those rights, advocates say.
Visitor restrictions on farms have impacted the ability of groups like Fuerza Migrante, Sanctuary Health and RAMA to connect with workers, increasing their vulnerability and cutting off access to supports. Cohen says even when RAMA proposed gatherings that followed health regulations — such as maintaining physical distance and requiring masks — employers were reluctant to allow workers to attend.
“In the Okanagan, we saw a number of farms imposing complete bans on folks going into the town, because of COVID,” Cohen says. “Some were isolated on the farm by their employers for the entirety of their contract last year.”
The only way to ensure workers have access to services is to grant everyone permanent resident status, the groups say — something called for early in the pandemic by Migrant Rights Network, a collection of advocacy groups across Canada.
In the wake of a federal announcement last month introducing new pathways to permanent resident status for 90,000 temporary foreign workers, those calls have only become louder.
“The only thing… that can really address the fact that this population has huge challenges accessing health care, huge challenges accessing legal rights and protections, the only thing is going to be that they have full status,” Cohen says. “Because their temporary status is used as a justification to deny them access to protections and rights.”
Most workers come under two federal programs and stay anywhere from a few months to a few years.
Traditionally, the majority have come under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which was established nearly 50 years ago between the Canadian and Jamaican governments. It was expanded a few years later to include other Caribbean countries and Mexico.
But increasingly workers are coming under the Agricultural Stream, an agreement between employers and recruitments agencies in the workers’ home country. Workers have fewer rights under this arrangement, Cruz says.
“Basically, when [employers] don’t like a worker, they send them back and the recruiting agency will not do any paperwork for them to come back,” Cruz says. “The workers are very vulnerable.”
Fear of losing their jobs and not being invited back dissuades workers from complaining about things like poor working and living conditions, lack of access to health care and employers not following public health guidelines.
“If one of them gets fired, there’s going to be 2,000 more workers in Mexico waiting for that spot,” says Vanessa Ortiz with the Association of Mexicans in Calgary. The organization, which is the only one in Alberta assisting migrant farmworkers, works with about 200 workers, or 10 per cent of Mexican farmworkers in Alberta, she says.
Barriers to permanent residency mean that some workers return season after season, sometimes for decades, yet their experience of Canada is limited to the farms — most have never experienced the Rocky Mountains or visited Niagara Falls. They have never had the opportunity to share their Canadian experience with loved ones, who remain at home.
That, the advocates say, is by design.
Most workers coming to work on Canadian farms are from rural areas, they say. They have limited education and English-language skills. Most have families back home, and some are single parents.
Those ties ensure the workers will return home at the end of a season.
This keeps them in a precarious loop that does not allow them to advance or gain full resident status but ensures an ongoing workforce for the agriculture industry.
“They will never have access to a pathway to permanent residency,” Ortiz says. “Very few farm workers will be able to fulfill the requirements of these announcements.”
April’s announcement from the federal government includes farm workers in principle, but its focus on health-care workers, as well as strict language and education requirements, excludes most of them, according to Migrant Rights Network.
Last week, the national organization released a report calling the announcement “an important step” to opening the door for permanent residency but expressing disappointment that it excludes the majority of migrants in Canada.
“Without permanent resident status, for many people it’s not even possible to get health care, including COVID-19 testing and vaccines,” Migrant Rights Network executive director Syed Hussan said during a press conference on May 4. “Without permanency residency status, it is not possible for people to speak back against a bad boss or to protect themselves when they are being discriminated against.”
“Permanent resident status is crucial because without it, migrants are dying.... Permanent resident status for all is a matter of life and death.”
Last year in Ontario, 1,500 farm workers were infected with COVID-19. Three migrant farm workers, all from Mexico, died from the illness.
A recent Ontario deputy chief coroner review of the deaths recommended a more integrated response between agencies, co-ordinated quarantine sites and isolation centres — like the hotels provided in B.C. — and said workers should be provided information about their rights and accessing health care. The report also called for ongoing regular and random inspections of housing and work-related areas.
In provinces where employers are responsible for quarantine, advocates share stories of workers arriving in the country after long journeys, only to be picked up and immediately driven many hours to their final destination. There, they are sometimes asked to quarantine in crowded accommodations where they are dependent on employers for access to food and health care.
“They rely 100 per cent on the benevolence, I would say, of the employer,” says Ortiz.
In April, Ortiz put a call out on social media for food donations for workers isolating in a Calgary hotel. She says she was overwhelmed by the response and was able to deliver snacks like crackers, peanut butter and fruit.
She calls the meals delivered three times a day, as required by government regulations, “small or less than average” and adds that workers entering the country for work are unlikely to have a budget for additional snacks.
Last week, her organization posted a letter to Twitter calling on the Alberta government to prioritize vaccines for migrant farm workers, who are more vulnerable due to isolation and lack of transportation.
“For us, anyone who is not having access to what everyone else has access to is an emergency,” she says. “We just wanted to make sure that they were as comfortable as possible, and they were feeling welcome.”
Popham says B.C. also provides snacks to workers in isolation and has sought feedback to ensure the snacks are culturally appropriate. “We’ve certainly made sure that food is one of those things that we try to be on top of, but of course, there’s always a potential of that not working,” she says.
Reg Ens, executive director for the BC Agriculture Council, says some employers have sent care packages to workers arriving in Vancouver, “just to help pass the time while they’re there.” Others, he adds, are considering how they can offer safe, outdoor gatherings that adhere to public health restrictions and provide the opportunity to socialize this summer.
The BC Agriculture Council represents 30 farm associations — everything from the BC Blueberry Council to BC Egg Producers Association — and Ens says the workers who arrive each year are “critical” to the industry, adding that each migrant farm worker creates several spinoff jobs for Canadians in sectors like quality control, transportation and retail.
Employers are required to pay migrant workers in quarantine and are reimbursed up to $1,500 a week by the federal government. This is set to drop to $750 next month. The program will wrap up entirely in late August, the government says.
Ens calls the B.C. government’s willingness to step in and oversee the isolation period “a godsend” and hopes the current crisis will force a lasting improvement in employee housing.
“We’ve flagged some issues around housing for a number of years,” Ens says, adding that the current approach creates overlapping jurisdictions between WorkSafeBC, municipal governments that provide permits for housing, the federal government that oversees the programs and the local health authority.
“You could have a farm that would be inspected by four different inspectors, and three of the four say everything’s good, and the fourth one says, ‘No, it’s not good,’” he says. “How do we take some of that red tape out and really make improvements that actually protect the workers and provide safe, quality housing?”
Popham also hopes that improved living conditions for migrant workers will be the “silver lining” that comes from the pandemic.
“That’s a file that I’ve been working hard on for the last few years,” she says. “We really want to make sure that the housing standards are improved for any of the international workers that come and help us. We want people to be treated like we would like to be treated.”
She says that workers are relieved to learn they’ll be arriving to a closely monitored quarantine program in B.C. “They know that when they arrive at a farm, everyone’s gone through the same process, so they feel safe that way,” she says.
But as workers continue to travel internationally between home and work, sometimes for decades, it comes at a cost to their personal lives, in addition to their health.
“I was talking to one of the workers and he said, ‘I’m not so sure if I will come back next year, because every year that I go, my kid is growing up. He’s telling me, Daddy, don’t go,’” Cruz says. “Eventually, the kids grow up without the dad or without the mom, and then the family breaks.”
While organizations continue to pressure governments to create an actual home where workers can settle with their families through permanent resident status, advocates say they will continue to support workers by trying to create a home away from home.
“So many times, workers will say, ‘This was the one thing I did this season off my farm.’ We’re like, wow, you’re here for eight months, and this one dance that we organized was the one thing,” Cohen says.
“Just hearing that ‘thank you,’ all of the efforts are worth it.”