British Columbia

Defend the Rights of Seasonal Agricultural Workers!

Several temporary foreign workers at the Krazy Cherry Fruit Company in Oliver in the Interior of British Columbia tested positive for COVID-19 in July causing the Interior Health Authority to declare an outbreak and issue an order stopping 36 migrant workers and 9 other individuals on the farm from leaving the property. The infected workers were moved to a hotel where they were quarantined.

Temporary foreign workers have provided evidence that living and working conditions on the farm are putting them at risk of COVID-19 transmission. On July 17 CBC News posted a video taken by a worker showing living conditions at the farm. Footage shows a bedroom shared by four men. One of the beds was used by one of the COVID-19 stricken workers who was, at the time of the video, in isolation. Black plastic bags containing his possessions were still in the room. The beds in the room are barely a metre apart and bedrooms are separated by hanging blankets. The video showed a nearly empty fridge. Workers are not allowed to leave the farm to shop for food.

Many voices are being raised about the treatment of migrant farm workers in British Columbia. An article which appeared in the Tri-City News (covering Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and Port Moody) on June 27, 2020 reported that Berenice Diaz Ceballos, the Mexican Consul General in Vancouver has called for migrant workers from Mexico to be afforded the same rights as Canadian workers and for improved oversight by the provincial and federal governments of conditions on the province's farms. Well over a thousand migrant workers have been infected with COVID-19 while working in Canada this year and three in Ontario have died. The paper reports that the Consul General visited more than 350 of the 550 farms in BC which employ Mexican workers and said that "Forty per cent have substandard housing" and that she described housing facilities covered in trash, infested with cockroaches and with no mattresses for the workers to sleep on. She said that in some cases farmers have installed padlocks on the outside of the only exit of a bunk house. "If there's an emergency, there's a fire, they will be dead immediately," the Consul General said.

Workers are crammed into minivans for transportation to and from the fields. Bullying and harassment of the workers are common in order to silence them from speaking out. Threats of deportation are held over their heads. Two workers at Bylands Nursery (site of a major COVID-19 outbreak in April affecting 23 workers) in West Kelowna were fired and deported to Mexico after representatives of the advocacy organization Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) visited them to bring food and clothing on June 28. The workers had completed their mandatory 14 day quarantine after starting work at Bylands on May 27 and there was no outbreak at the farm at the time, the earlier outbreak having been declared over on May 21. Bylands has arbitrarily decreed that migrant farm workers are not permitted to leave the property or have visitors, a restriction that does not apply to any other workers.

Reached at her home in Mexico, Erika Zavala, one of the deported former Bylands workers stated "Workers simply seeking to support their families deserve dignified, fair and equal treatment." She added "Many employers believe that by giving us work, we belong to them and they can do with us what they want." RAMA activist Amy Cohen, who was one of the advocates who visited the workers on June 28, told CBC News on July 22 that RAMA is concerned that the policy of no visitors and no leaving the employer's premises for the duration of employment is a human rights violation. "It is discriminatory and unfair as the restrictions only apply to temporary foreign workers and not other Bylands employees."

Bylands isn't the only employer of temporary foreign workers to restrict community access. Two of the largest fruit growing farms in the Okanagan, Coral Beach Farms and Jealous Fruits, forbid migrant workers from leaving their properties or receiving visitors. "We feel like prisoners," one worker told RAMA, adding, "Canadians are allowed to go buy groceries at the store, go to church, go to the park. Why aren't we?"

On July 28, RAMA issued an appeal to members of the community to contact Bylands, Coral Beach Farms and Jealous Fruits calling on them to allow community access and visitation rights to temporary foreign workers once their mandatory 14-day quarantine period has expired. The appeal also asks people to contact Minister of Health Adrian Dix and Minister of Labour Harry Bains. RAMA is calling for the establishment of an investigation and appeals process for any worker who is terminated.

Workers' Forum joins migrant farm workers and advocates and allies across the country in demanding that the rights of migrant workers be enforced and that they be granted permanent resident status. These workers play an essential role in providing Canadians and others with the food we need and Canada must guarantee them dignified and healthy working and living conditions and health care at a Canadian standard.

(With files from CBC, Tri-City News, Guardian)

This article was published in

Number 54 - August 13, 2020

Article Link:
British Columbia: Defend the Rights of Seasonal Agricultural Workers! - Brian Sproule and Barbara Biley


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