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Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham during a press conference in the press gallery at the Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on June 20, 2018.CHAD HIPOLITO

It has cost British Columbia about $10-million so far, but the province’s program to quarantine migrant workers in hotels while paying for their food and accommodation is estimated to have prevented more than two dozen potential COVID-19 outbreaks at farms and greenhouses.

The program, introduced in April following a March outbreak at an Okanagan nursery that employs migrant workers, has prompted the federal government to look to B.C. as it weighs changes to its migrant worker programs, B.C.‘s Minister of Agriculture said.

“I know British Columbia is being used as an example as a way to do it successfully. If we didn’t take the route we took, we would have had a high possibility of 28 community outbreaks so far,” Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said in a recent interview, referring to the number of positive cases at the time.

Other measures taken even before the pandemic hit has made the province a testing ground for how to get employers, union groups and migrant support groups to work together to ensure the safety of migrant workers while also allowing agri-food businesses in the province to access the labour they need, Mexico’s consul-general in Vancouver said.

A lesson learned early: How B.C. has avoided major COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant farm workers

“B.C. is like a laboratory. Things here have worked. Obviously my counterparts and my ambassador know what’s going on in B.C.,” Berenice Diaz Ceballos, Mexico’s consul-general in Vancouver, said in a recent interview.

There are still major problems with the program, including sub-standard accommodation at many work sites, Ms. Diaz Ceballos said. Since taking her post in Vancouver in 2016, Ms. Diaz Ceballos has co-ordinated a process through which employers found to have violated housing or other program standards are temporarily or permanently “unendorsed” from the program. In 2019, for example, Mexico booted eight B.C. farms from the program and four were allowed to bring in fewer workers, according to the Mexican consulate.

On the COVID-19 front, however, B.C.‘s approach has helped the province largely avoid the agricultural sector outbreaks that are hitting Ontario, where hundreds of migrant workers have tested positive for the virus and three, all Mexican nationals, have died. Mexico in June temporarily hit pause on sending workers to Canada, agreeing to resume the program only after receiving assurances from Canada related to pandemic testing and worker conditions.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said last month the federal government is planning an overhaul of the program.

Since April 13, 2020, more than 4,000 temporary foreign workers have arrived in B.C. All workers have been quarantined, at provincial expense, in Vancouver-area hotels. Of those workers, 35 have tested positive for COVID-19, with 31 fully recovering so far and now working on 24 different farms, the Ministry of Agriculture said this week.

On Monday, B.C.‘s Interior Health Authority, one of five regional health authorities in the province, issued an isolation order for Krazy Cherry Fruit Co. in Oliver after two positive COVID-19 cases – including one temporary foreign worker – were linked to the farm. The temporary foreign worker had been through 14-days of self-isolation and tested negative before starting work at the farm, Interior Health said.

B.C. developed its plan after an outbreak in March at Bylands Nurseries Ltd., a West Kelowna business that employs migrant workers. The outbreak has since been declared over.

But the outbreak raised concerns about the hundreds of other migrant workers who were scheduled to arrive over the spring and summer. On April 14, the government announced that all temporary foreign workers would be required to self-isolate in government-run accommodations for 14 days prior to being transported to farms throughout B.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers are required to pay workers for a minimum of 30 hours a week during isolation.

“At that point, we realized we had a situation that we had to get a handle on really quickly because the planes were still coming,” Ms. Popham said. “We weren’t looking at it through a financial lens, we were looking at how do we keep people safe and how do we do this most effectively.”

B.C. in 2018 introduced the Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act, which requires recruiters and employers to be registered. Manitoba and Saskatchewan have similar requirements. B.C.‘s recruiter registry – designed to curb illegal recruiting fees and other abuses – is up and running; the employer registry was delayed by the pandemic but is expected to be launched later this year.

B.C. is also home for the Migrant Worker Support Network, a two-year federal pilot project launched in 2018 that provided $3.4-million for government agencies, labour unions and migrant support groups to work together on workers’ concerns.

Ms. Diaz Ceballos said her office has pressed for changes, including stepped-up inspections of migrant worker housing. That background set the stage for changes when the pandemic hit, including a requirement for in-person inspection of work sites by government inspectors before workers arrived.

Previously, inspections had been done by a mix of government and contracted inspectors, Ms. Diaz Ceballos said.

B.C.‘s quarantine requirement for migrant workers has helped prevent outbreaks, but problems in the sector remain, said Natalie Drolet, executive director of the Vancouver-based Migrant Workers’ Centre BC.

For years, advocates have complained a system that ties workers to a specific employer leaves employees open to abuse. In 2019, the federal government introduced an open work permit for vulnerable workers.

In a February letter to the federal government, Migrant Workers’ Centre BC raised several concerns with the program, including workers’ limited access to legal support and translators during the process.

Canada’s agriculture sector employs about 60,000 migrant workers each year.

“I think the pandemic has brought to light a lot of injustices these workers endure while working in Canada,” Ms. Drolet said. “Their housing conditions and, frankly, the indentured nature of their labour where they are tied to a specific employer and the power imbalance that exists in that relationship.”

The pandemic has created the opportunity, and obligation, to focus on migrant workers’ health and housing and put a spotlight on food security and systems, Ms. Popham said.

“There’s no choice right now and it’s the way we should be moving forward in the future.”

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