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Flooded farmland in Abbotsford, B.C., on Dec. 1.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s flooding first took away their possessions, travel documents and even Christmas gifts for families. Now, the aftermath has meant some migrant farm workers in southern B.C. have been forced to return to their home countries and many others are wondering if they’ll be back in the spring for their jobs.

After floodwaters ravaged farms in Abbotsford, B.C.’s agricultural hub, hundreds of temporary foreign workers from countries such as Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala and the Philippines were displaced. Migrant rights advocates say some of the workers are out of jobs and sent back to their home countries. Other workers have had to stay in temporary shelters and some are in limbo, looking for opportunities to work.

Advocates say short-term and long-term assistance is needed for these employees, a key work force in B.C. They are calling on the provincial and local governments to provide emergency funds and housing, and are asking Ottawa to review a long-standing issue: Work permits for temporary foreign workers are tied to individual employers, and advocates want that policy changed to allow open work permits.

Many migrants working in Canada are in either the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, or TFWP, or the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, or SAWP.

“There is anxiety in workers from both programs,” said Byron Cruz, a spokesperson for Sanctuary Health, a group that delivers aid and legal advice to migrants.

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He estimated about 700 workers were affected by flooding that put 819 farms on an evacuation order. Many of those farms have been destroyed.

“So even though they have legal status in Canada … they’re not allowed to work for anybody else,” said Jonathon Braun, staff lawyer at Migrant Workers Centre. “They now don’t have an opportunity to earn an income and many of them are supporting families back home.”

Mr. Braun said workers under both programs are tied to specific employers. Theoretically, workers can switch to a different employer under TFWP, he said, but many aren’t familiar with the policy and the process is cumbersome and can take months. Regarding SAWP, he explained, consulates from participating partner countries can assist workers to change employers.

SAWP, which brings workers from Mexico, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, allows them to be hired for up to eight months in Canada every year.

Mr. Cruz said many Mexican workers have been working for the same employer for a long time, but are now unsure whether they will be called back next year and whether they can work for the same employer.

“No one knows exactly when they are coming back. Usually, people have an idea, they say, ‘Oh, the employer brings me [back] around February, March, April.’ But this time, there is no certainty about that,” he said in an interview.

Employment and Social Development Canada didn’t comment on whether the federal government is considering issuing open work permits for these workers, but said they can look for alternate employment and could be eligible to receive Employment Insurance benefits while they are legally permitted to be in Canada, provided they meet the eligibility criteria.

ESDC communications officer Saskia Rodenburg said foreign workers with an employer-specific work permit also need to be willing to apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for a new work permit should they find suitable employment.

Berenice Diaz Ceballos, Mexico’s Consul-General in Vancouver, said around 200 workers under SAWP were affected by flooding and the consulate has been in contact with each one of them.

She said this year, owing to a string of extreme weather events, including the summer’s heat dome and wildfires, the consulate has assisted more than 200 workers to transfer to a different employer, and about eight of them were affected by the recent flooding.

Many Mexican workers’ current contracts conclude on Dec. 15, and some had left the country before the flooding. Among those affected by flooding, some preferred to return to Mexico since it’s the end of the season, she noted.

“No one was forced to go back to Mexico, not on the program [SAWP] we’re talking,” she said, adding she does not have concrete information on workers under TFWP unless they contact the consulate.

Ms. Diaz Ceballos added that each year, 6,500 temporary workers come to B.C. from Mexico.

She said it’s premature to predict how the farms will be affected next season, but she’s aware that employers had already started the process to bring back Mexican workers. And if working opportunities lessen in B.C., the consulate will try to send workers to other provinces, she noted.

Advocacy groups said granting temporary foreign workers open work permits is among the most significant ways to provide security at such times.

The federal government needs “to be more flexible when issuing these work permits,” said Gurcharan Dhillon, who works with Archway Community Services. “This flexibility would protect TFWs to maintain a secure income for themselves and their families, as well as ensuring that Canadians are guaranteed access to the food on our tables.”

She said Archway and its partners are supporting 380 displaced temporary foreign workers.

Mr. Cruz and Mr. Braun said workers could also face barriers when they apply for Employment Insurance. For example, to qualify, workers need to actively look for a job and to have worked between 420 and 700 insurable hours. But advocates say foreign workers cannot diligently find jobs if they hold closed work permits and cannot accumulate those working hours if they’ve arrived in Canada recently.

Emergency Management BC said the province has been working with the Consulate-General of Mexico and Guatemala to get as many temporary foreign workers placed on other farms or returned to their home country.

It said it has reached out to the federal government to ensure federal programs and supports are co-ordinated and available for immigrants, refugees and migrant workers affected by flooding. It added that the workers are also eligible for the $2,000 payments through the Red Cross if their primary residence was located in an area that was under an evacuation order.

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