Migrant workers face health risks, financial burden amid COVID, Okanagan advocacy group warns

·3 min read

The growing season of the Okanagan region is still months away, but a local labour rights advocacy group is already warning about the health risks and financial burden facing temporary foreign workers when they come to Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Migrant workers are free from travel restrictions to come to Canada but have to undergo a 14-day quarantine — including no more than three days at a government-approved hotel while they wait for mandatory test results.

"These tests cost anywhere between $200 and $500, which is not an insignificant amount for these folks," Amy Cohen, co-founder of Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture Okanagan, told CBC's Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"They also have to pay for travel and accommodations in the cities where they get these tests, which can be also really expensive."

Currently the federal government allows international flights to land in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal airports only.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said visitors to Canada must pay for their hotel accommodation during the quarantine period up to $2,000, but the B.C. government says it will pay for this expenditure for foreign workers.

The province also requires employers to provide transportation from the Vancouver airport to the hotel, as well as from the hotel to the employee housing units.

Concerns of health risks at work

Cohen says she keeps hearing foreign labourers' concerns about the lack of physical distancing at staff dormitories.

"They live in aggregate housing, [which is] often very crowded, often substandard," she said. "That doesn't allow them to easily isolate from other workers."

Tim Walton says that's not the case at the tree nursery in Armstrong, B.C., where he works as a production manager. Walton expects temporary foreign workers to arrive there in mid-March.

"We have a [housing] facility on site where the guys are able to have their own room," he said. "They're all double rooms, but we use them as single occupancy."

Pinder Dhaliwal, operator of an orchard and a winery in Oliver, B.C., expects his seasonal staff members to come back in mid-April. Besides covering their charter flights and paying them wages for 30 hours per week during quarantine, Dhaliwal says he ensures adequate physical distance between them at work.

"We made sure that two or three people are not picking on the same tree," he said about his orchard operation last summer. "Each person was individually allocated [to] each tree."

Neither employer pays for the mandatory PCR testing.

Workers still want to come to Canada

Cohen says many temporary foreign workers are still motivated to come to Canada despite the pandemic and how expensive it may be, because they can't find a job in their home countries.

"Their incomes are the only thing that are keeping their families [in their home countries] afloat," she said.

Cohen says she's asking the B.C. government to waive the three-month waiting period for temporary foreign workers for receiving provincial health coverage, including a COVID-19 vaccine.

"Any migrant farm worker who wants the COVID vaccine should be able to get that as soon as they arrive here," she said.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, in 2019 around 11,000 temporary foreign workers — predominantly from Mexico — came to B.C., and 846 foreign workers have arrived in the province since Jan. 1.

Tap the link below to hear Amy Cohen's interview on Daybreak South: