Eight farmworkers who landed in British Columbia through the temporary foreign worker program this spring developed COVID-19 symptoms while under quarantine by the provincial government.
Since the first flight carrying farm hands from Mexico arrived in Vancouver one month ago under the new pandemic protocol, the province has played host to more than 1,500 workers in government accommodations for a two-week-long isolation period. The goal is ensuring the workers don’t bring the novel coronavirus to the farms where they will be employed.
B.C., along with Ontario and Quebec, relies heavily on temporary foreign workers for farm labour. Most years, roughly one-quarter of all agriculture workers in those provinces are in Canada under the temporary foreign worker program. But B.C. is the only province of the three providing quarantine services before those workers travel to the farms for seasonal jobs.
“It’s costly, but probably saves money if you look at the cost of businesses shutting down,” B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said in an interview Tuesday.
Ms. Popham said the province decided to implement the quarantine program to ensure agriculture operations could get the labour they need this year, without the risk of carrying coronavirus into communities around the province. She said the cost won’t be known until the season is over: “We’re still getting applications.”
The eight workers were all heading to different farms, which might have meant COVID-19 exposures for hundreds of farm workers. “They could have infected other staff and really shut down those operations," Ms. Popham said. Seven of the eight workers have recovered and have been cleared to work.
The program was implemented after a nursery in the B.C. Interior was shut down after a coronavirus outbreak infected 23 workers; the illness is believed to be traced to the arrival of temporary foreign workers in Kelowna in early March. The workers were living in shared housing provided by the nursery.
Ms. Popham said the quarantine program is designed to avoid a repeat of that incident. “Without this being in place, we could have seen that happen in many areas of the province.”
The pandemic has led Canada to impose a mandatory quarantine for temporary foreign workers when they first arrive. All temporary foreign workers are screened before departing their country of origin and are not allowed to travel to Canada if they show symptoms. When they arrive, they are screened again for symptoms and can be quarantined at the point of entry or be sent to hospital.
Prince Edward Island is the only province other than B.C. that provides accommodation for those workers before they travel to their workplaces. Other provinces have been helping agriculture businesses to manage the quarantine period on their farms. Ontario has had dozens of COVID-19 cases among its temporary foreign workers working in agriculture.
In B.C., if the new arrivals have no symptoms when they land, they are sent to hotels near Vancouver International Airport. The province is paying for the rooms, food service and worker support costs during the 14-day self-isolation period. During that time, employers are responsible for paying their temporary foreign workers for a minimum 30 hours a week, at the hourly rate that they would make while working.
As well, farm operators are required to demonstrate proof of an infection control plan with the Ministry of Agriculture. So far, 219 farms have submitted health plans online, and 133 inspections have been completed to make sure farms are safely equipped and organized to manage COVID-19 risks.
Ms. Popham said she hopes B.C. will be able to bring a total of 6,000 farmworkers to the province this year. “It’s entrenched in the way we do business here,” she said. “If we hadn’t figured out a solution, we would have had a very different situation in this sector.”
Kris Maan of Maan Farms in Abbotsford said the B.C. support program has been critical to keeping his operation running.
Mr. Maan, his wife and three of their adult children work the berry farm together, but recruiting local workers has been a challenge. The family relies on at least seven temporary foreign workers who return every year, but only two of their regular crew had arrived from Mexico City in February, before the pandemic disrupted travel.
“We would have been devastated if we couldn’t bring in temporary foreign workers,” Mr. Maan said. Almost everything on the 36-hectare Maan Farm is planted and harvested by hand. “The workers are [an] essential service to us, and we are an essential service to the public.”
In March, with additional farm hands stuck in Mexico, Mr. Maan contacted the Ministry of Agriculture, which arranged to get his usual workers on flights to Vancouver, where they isolated in government-provided accommodations. Two workers have since arrived at the farm and another pair are expected later this week.
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