Migrant workers in B.C. face more uncertainty after being displaced by flooding

·3 min read
Migrant farm workers in Abbotsford on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC News - image credit)
Migrant farm workers in Abbotsford on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC News - image credit)

Advocates say more safeguards are needed to protect a key workforce in B.C. as temporary foreign workers were forced from farms due to extreme weather and flooding.

This year has been a difficult one for migrant workers in the agricultural sector who have faced barriers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme heat, effects of wildfires and now flooding.

"It's been a hard, hard year," said Byron Cruz who speaks for the organization Sanctuary Health, which advocates for the rights and well being of foreign workers in B.C.

'One thing after another'

The province welcomes more than 10,000 workers each year from countries like Mexico and Guatemala.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries said that around 150 temporary foreign workers were forced to evacuate nine farms near Chilliwack and Abbotsford due to flooding.

"All workers that reported in so far are safe, sheltering either in centres or with other farms where there is room," said a statement from the ministry.

Ben Nelms/CBC News
Ben Nelms/CBC News

Advocates say hundreds more migrant workers in B.C. have been forced from farms than the province has accounted for. They say they have lost possessions to the flooding or even documentation necessary for travel.

"They are very anxious and worried," said Ingrid Mendez de Cruz, executive director of the Watari Counselling and Support Services Society in Vancouver, which has been providing food and care to displaced workers.

"They are really struggling. "It's one thing after another."

Catastrophes in 2021 have further uncovered problems with how temporary foreign workers are contracted to work in B.C., according to advocates. They say the system creates vulnerabilities especially in crises when displaced workers could lose wages or not be able to access health care.

Syed Hussan, executive director for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in Toronto, is working with others across the country to lobby the federal government to better provide employment insurance to temporary foreign workers, whose contracts can be as short as a month.

"Workers don't have power because they don't have permanent resident status," he said.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries says it is supporting workers by making sure employers are meeting their legal obligations and have evacuation plans in place that include temporary foreign workers.

'We need to update'

Mexican Consul General Berenice Díaz Ceballos said a series of meetings are set for the coming weeks with provincial and federal officials to discuss how contracts and working arrangements could change in the future to help guard temporary foreign workers from disasters.

"We need to update the contract in order to conceive all the different scenarios that can present in B.C. while the workers are here," she said. "They have been considered essential workers and the thing we are asking is that they receive the same treatment as any Canadian."

Díaz Ceballos said there are currently 111 Mexican workers in B.C and most of them were displaced. She said all have been accounted for and are safe but are unsure if they will be able to finish current contracts, many of which conclude on Dec. 15.

Each year, 6,500 temporary workers come to Mexico from B.C., she said.

The consulate is working to find ways to transfer workers to other farms that weren't impacted by flooding, also helping those who want to return home.

In the meantime, several organizations such as Sanctuary Health, Watari, Khalsa Aid and the Migrants Rights Network are raising money for affected workers.

The province said workers can also access services and supports through the B.C. Settlement and Integration Services Program.

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