Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to grapple last week with the treatment of migrant farm workers after hundreds of agricultural labourers, mostly in Ontario, tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the Mexican government to suspend the annual exodus of its workers to Canadian farms.
A deal between Canada and Mexico was reached on the weekend to resume travel of labourers. But the dispute never did stop temporary foreign workers from leaving Mexico on planes for British Columbia, because of a unique program the province implemented in April designed to avert the kind of outbreaks Mr. Trudeau now promises to address in other provinces.
An investigation by The Globe and Mail has shown that the living and working conditions of some of the country’s most vulnerable workers allowed the pandemic to spread.
As Mr. Trudeau promises to find ways to do better by the migrant workers who are essential to Canada’s food system, he could look to B.C. for at least part of the answer.
British Columbia, like Ontario and Quebec, relies heavily on temporary foreign workers for farm labour.
The difference is that B.C. responded to a single COVID-19 outbreak at a plant nursery early in March with a plan designed to prevent a repeat. The cost of the program is not known yet, but it is expected to be tens of millions of dollars.
Since April 13, the B.C. government has organized and paid for quarantine services for migrant workers who arrive in B.C. to take seasonal farm jobs. The employers must pay wages during this time. So far, 2,800 people have been housed in Vancouver-area hotels, where they are provided meals, health care and other supports during their two week isolation. Of those, 23 have tested positive for COVID-19 while in quarantine.
Because of the pandemic, new arrivals to Canada are legally required to self-isolate for two weeks. But housing on the farms is typically crowded, with shared kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.
Providing these services is a tacit admission that those operations relying on migrant workers cannot effectively provide quarantine in their housing.
David Geen, owner of Jealous Fruits, a cherry producer in B.C.‘s Okanagan Valley, said he has invested millions of dollars in housing for the migrant workers who make up the majority of his work force at harvest time. But even with that, he said, he could not imagine how to safely provide quarantine facilities.
“We were seriously contemplating sitting out the year. We could not figure out how to properly do this,” Mr. Geen said in an interview. “We’re farmers, we’re not epidemiologists.”
His cherry farms and packing facility employ 150 local and 500 migrant workers at peak times. “We have spread people out in the dorms, and in the fields, but if you have an infected person arrive in your dorms, it’s difficult to keep [the virus] out.”
So far this year, he has 155 temporary foreign workers on site, and another 130 are in quarantine. He expects another group later in June, and still more in early July. Even after their quarantine, the farm provides the workers with groceries and amenities so that they can remain isolated while working.
There have been no reports of COVID-19 cases on B.C. farms since the quarantine housing program began. Mr. Geen said B.C. deserves credit for that success, but he believes Ottawa should have stepped up to ensure farm workers and farms across the country were similarly protected.
“I feel ill reading about the tragic situation in Ontario,” he said.
Still, the living and working conditions for migrant workers remain an ugly aspect of food production in Canada, including in British Columbia. The fact that many farms cannot recruit local workers, even as unemployment spikes owing to the pandemic, is telling.
Weeks before B.C. unveiled its quarantine plan, the Dignidad Migrante Society, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that provides services, support, representation and assistance to migrant workers, called attention to those working conditions.
Raul Gabica is a spokesman for the organization. A former farm worker who is now a Canadian citizen, Mr. Gabica said B.C.‘s response has been a very good step. “But the workers are still in overcrowded housing, with no space for social distancing.”
Typical accommodations on B.C. farms provide one bathroom and one kitchen for every 10 workers, he said, with two or three people in each bedroom. “The housing standards have to change,” he said.
The pandemic has exposed that putting cheap food on the table comes at a high price for some.
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