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The Lifelines for Thousands of BC Foreign Farmworkers

Non-profits have stepped up to provide the supports and connection for workers isolated far from home.

Zak Vescera 14 Sep 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Chris Castro will visit his first farm in the cool of the morning. 

Throughout the day Castro, an outreach worker with the non-profit Watari, will speak with dozens of migrant farmworkers across the Fraser Valley, men and women who travel thousands of kilometres every year to work in the province’s fields and greenhouses. 

Castro will share tacos and Oaxacan coffee with a group of Mexican workers near Abbotsford who he has known for years. He brings them bikes and helmets loaded into a grey Sprinter van. At another farm, Castro gives a newly arrived group a talk about their rights. A man stops Castro before he leaves: he has a friend working at a farm in Ontario whose employer is mistreating him, he said. Castro nods, and says he’ll make some calls. 

Later, that night, Castro gets coffee at a Tim Hortons in Langley with a Guatemalan worker who was injured on her job. She’s in limbo now, fighting with her employer and the provincial government to keep her job in Canada so she can provide for her son back home. Castro helped her prepare and file her case file. Now, he listens, frustrated he cannot do more. 

Every year, about 10,000 workers come to British Columbia because the wages they earn here are far superior to their home, which for most people is Mexico, Guatemala or Jamaica. But living in Canada is not easy. Workers who do not speak English struggle to access basic medical services. There is a constant need for food, bikes and sometimes basic protective equipment for the hazardous work on the farm. And some workers are the target of abuse by their bosses. 

Byron Cruz and Ingrid Mendez de Cruz stand in front of an open Sprinter van, their hands resting on two bicycles.
Ingrid Mendez de Cruz and Byron Cruz stand for a photo in the Fraser Valley. The Cruzes deliver key supplies to migrant farmworkers across the Fraser Valley. Photo by Zak Vescera.

Castro is part of a loose network that has emerged to help in the sometimes-invisible world of migrant labour. Across British Columbia, they are visiting farms, shipping supplies and organizing English classes and community events. In the worst of cases, they even rescue workers from abusive farms. They are advocates and counsellors, social workers and refugees and, often, some of the only people these workers will ever meet from beyond the farm gates. 

Community and connection

It is Father’s Day in Kelowna, and Raul Gatica is trying to feed more than 100 hungry farmworkers. Dozens of men run across two soccer fields in this park on the eastern end of town, just a short drive from the orchards where some work.

Mariachi music blasts out of a speaker as Gatica serves pizza from dozens of boxes he’s bought for the event. Fans cheer. An older man appoints himself as one team’s coach, screaming a mix of gentle encouragement and colourful expletives from the sidelines. A separate group of soccer players in matching purple and white jerseys look around with befuddled expressions. Clearly, they didn’t know this is a tradition.

Gatica, the executive director of Dignidad Migrante, has been organizing this soccer tournament for migrant farmworkers since 2009. Many organize their teams based on which farms they work on. It is a bittersweet tradition. The men here have made enormous sacrifices by travelling to Canada to provide for their families and children, but cannot celebrate Father’s Day with them. “We are trying to be together to feel less lonely,” said Gatica.

A man is about to kick a soccer ball.
Events like the Father’s Day soccer tournament help workers mark occasions they cannot celebrate with their families back home — and they also help connect workers with vital resources. Photo by Zak Vescera.

Gatica founded Dignidad Migrante after coming to Canada as a refugee in 2006. His first job was at an orchard, picking cherries. His organization helps workers with any number of issues, ranging from an abusive employer to tips on where to buy good tortillas. Events like this, Gatica says, help connect workers with important resources. And they are a rare moment of unity for workers who rarely get a chance to participate in Canadian society. 

“They are away on the field and no one sees them,” Gatica said. “They just see the apples, the tomatoes, the cherries on the table. But they don’t see the brown hand that harvests it.”

Thousands of B.C.’s temporary farmworkers live in the Kelowna area, many merely minutes away from the city’s downtown. But most people in the Okanagan will never see or speak to them. During the harvest season, workers may spend 10, 12 or even 15 hours a day in the field or in packing houses. They typically come into town just once a week to buy groceries. Many from Mexico and Guatemala have been coming here for more than a decade but speak very little English, simply because they have never had an opportunity to learn. 

“They feel ignored by everybody. They feel like they are invisible,” said Javier Robles, an outreach worker with Kelowna Community Resources, who is doubling as one of the referees for Sunday’s soccer game. KCR was a co-organizer of the game this year. Robles has been visiting farms across the region for years, a job that keeps him plenty busy. In the summer months, Robles gets phone calls from workers at all hours of the night, in the thin windows between their long shifts.

“This is not 35 hours a week. This is seven days a week. You have to try and get a balance between your personal life and your work,” Robles said. On some days, he might act as a translator for workers who need to see a medical professional. On others, he’s helping workers complete important paperwork. Frequently, he is involved directly in trying to resolve a dispute with employers. 

Sometimes, said Watari’s executive director, Ingrid Mendez de Cruz, what workers want more than anything is someone to talk to.

Mendez spends occasional weekends visiting farms in the Fraser Valley with her husband and fellow advocate, Byron Cruz. Many migrant workers on British Columbia’s farms secure these jobs through payments to immigration consultants, who then line up a job through the agriculture stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker program, Mendez said. They might come here for months or years at a time without much contact with the outside world.

Juan, whose real name The Tyee is withholding so he does not face repercussions, says Father’s Day is not the only celebration he has missed. His eldest son recently graduated from university, but Juan could not attend the ceremony because he was in Kelowna harvesting apples.

This separation weighs heavily on workers, Mendez said. “Many times, there’s a little one left at home thinking that their dad doesn’t care, that their mom doesn’t care. And they worry about that. They worry about their families.”

Assistance in emergencies

On one Sunday in the Fraser Valley, a group of workers on bikes stops to wave at Mendez and Cruz. The duo, who came to Canada as political refugees from Guatemala in the 1990s, are well known and well-loved in this community.

In Guatemala, Cruz says he was an organizer with a local student union, calling out corruption within the school’s administration in the midst of a brutal civil war. Mendez, who worked for the teacher’s union, said people began following both of them around the city. Friends and co-workers started disappearing. When the Canadian consulate asked where they would like to go, Mendez said, they responded with Vancouver because it was the only name they knew. They arrived with just a $20 bill in their pockets, given to them by Mendez’s brother. 

Today, Mendez runs Watari, one of the largest non-profits in the province that assists migrant workers. Cruz runs Sanctuary Health, which tries to connect workers with desperately needed medical help.

Workers, Cruz said, are vulnerable to all sorts of illnesses that stem from cramped housing, a dramatic change in climate and long hours of physically intense work in the fields. Many workers who come to Canada are covered under private health-care plans paid by the employer. Others, who are not covered, are also not eligible for the government’s Medical Services Plan until they’ve been in B.C. for three months.

“The hospitals are sometimes pressuring, asking questions, who is going to pay these bills,” Cruz said. 

It’s far from the only problem workers face, Cruz said. Outreach staff and workers interviewed by The Tyee described consistent problems with housing, financial abuse and other issues with their employers, which many fear complaining about because they risk losing their jobs. 

When those emergencies happen, the network is there. They bring supplies to workers when employers won’t provide them. They arrange visits to the doctor and appointments with lawyers. Perla Villegas, an outreach worker with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture, or RAMA, has sometimes driven directly to farms to pick up workers who are being abused by their employer and transfer them to safe houses.

All of this costs money, and there isn’t much to go around. In recent years, the federal government has begun offering some funds through MOSAIC, a Vancouver-area non-profit that has flowed that cash through to other organizations supporting migrant workers across the province. But Villegas, a lawyer by training, says RAMA still relies on a mix of grants and donations to fund its work. And Castro says that only about half the migrant farmers in the province are in touch with an organization like Watari. 

Those groups have a mixed relationship with farmers themselves. Some employers welcome their services. Others are ambivalent and some are openly hostile. Villegas said employers have chased her out of workers’ homes, even though workers invited her to come.

Glen Lucas, the general manager of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, says his industry group has no official relationship with such organizations. He says his members sometimes feel “unfairly targeted” by groups such as RAMA, who have gone to the press with reports about living conditions on some farms. Lucas argues there are no more problems on farms than in any other sector that employs temporary foreign workers.

“We certainly acknowledge that within a sector that includes, say, 300 employers of foreign workers, of any workers, there will be issues that need to be addressed. And those are of concern to anyone. But in general, it’s a good program,” Lucas said. 

As the soccer game wraps up, some workers make their way to a church, where Villegas is teaching English classes. The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kelowna is one of a few that have stepped up to help migrant farmworkers, raising money for everything from boots to bikes to food. Tonight, the church has also packed gift bags for Father’s Day, loaded up with Vancouver Canucks baseball caps. 

A woman and a man stand on the sidewalk of a shopping plaza.
Pastor Bob Bacic and June Dobyna stand for a photo in Kelowna. Bacic and Dobyna are members of the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which has raised money, donations and started English classes for migrant farmworkers in the region. Photo by Zak Vescera.

Another one of the teachers is June Dubyna, a churchgoer who helped get the congregation involved after learning of the plight of some of the workers who grow the city’s food. She believes most Kelownians aren’t.

“Of course I was aware there were people coming here to pick produce and all of that, but I had no clue. No clue about the conditions that some of them were living in and the experiences and the challenges that they face,” Dubyna said. In some cases, she said, the church has raised money for workers who cannot afford desperately needed dental work. In others, Dubyna has housed workers who need to convalesce after suffering heart attacks in the field.

Dubyna, who is Australian, had never cooked with a jalapeno before, but said she learned some Mexican recipes to help the workers feel comfortable. “I had to spice it up a bit,” she said with a laugh. 

Dubyna says that when she personally visited a farm, she was shocked by the conditions there. She said she never believed such a thing would be possible in Canada, which prides itself on its defense of human rights internationally. 

“We, the church, are not into government situations. But it seems to me there is a lack of oversight from the government,” she said. “I would have no clue how a farmer could go and put up a shack where there’s no proper facilities. I don’t know how they can do that and get away with that.”

Back in the Fraser Valley, Castro is finishing his day. He gives The Tyee a ride home, far from the fields where he has spent hours canvassing and speaking to migrant workers. Castro’s experience in this is personal. When his family immigrated to Canada from Chile, he said, it was Watari that helped them settle here. Castro loves the work. But he knows every time he arrives at a farm that it might be weeks or months before they trust him enough to let him into their world. 

“They are always afraid, always scared,” Castro said. “If they see another car, another person, there’s always this fear. You can see their faces.”   [Tyee]

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