Okanagan farmers defend treatment of migrant workers under COVID-19 | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Okanagan farmers defend treatment of migrant workers under COVID-19

Erika Zavala and Jesus Molina were temporary foreign farm workers allegedly fired and sent back to Mexico for meeting with someone off the farm where they worked.
Image Credit: Submitted/Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture

The firing of two Mexican workers in West Kelowna for, allegedly, talking to a worker’s rights advocate, has the Okanagan farming community on the defensive.

They won’t speak directly about the allegations made in a report by Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture claiming mistreatment of temporary foreign workers.

“I think the report mischaracterizes the COVID-19 requirements and protocols that farmers are placed under,” Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, told iNFOnews.ca. “We’re not going to respond to that type of report.”

Instead, he sent links to government documents outlining precautions farmers need to take to protect their workers from COVID-19.

“The forced isolation of temporary foreign farm workers after their quarantine period by employers such as Bylands, Jealous Fruits, and Coral Beach must be stopped immediately,” the Radical Action group stated in a release. “These racist and discriminatory actions violate the human rights of these essential workers and is detrimental to their health and wellbeing as well as that of the local communities as they erect barriers for workers to report symptoms directly to health care personnel and access supports from local communities.”

The current conflict between the two groups was sparked by Radical Action’s Amy Cohen and another person being called by two Mexicans working at Bylands Nursery, asking if she could bring them some food and clothing.

Cohen has known Erika Zavala for six or seven years. They met off Bylands’ property earlier this month after Zavala and her partner, Jesus Molina, asked their supervisor for permission to meet, Cohen said.

Cohen said they were fired by Bylands and sent home within three days of the meeting, apparently for violating a verbal agreement that they would not meet with anyone from off Bylands’ land.

No one from Bylands responded to interview requests but David Geen, who owns Lake Country based Coral Beach Farms – the largest cherry producer in Canada – did issue a written statement.

In it, he didn’t exactly deny Cohen’s allegations about the violation of workers’ rights.

“In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on individual freedoms are fair and just, and Canada’s continued success at flattening the curve cannot be sustained in any other way,” Geen wrote.

This is not the first time Geen and Cohen have had a difference of opinion on this issue.

Back in April, fruit growers were negotiating with the government to allow temporary foreign workers into Canada during the pandemic to help plant, then harvest, the crop. At that time Geen suggested that, once here, workers be restricted to the lands of farmers who hired and housed them.

“I think that’s a really terrible idea,” Cohen said at the time. “This is a group of workers that is already isolated at the best of times and, what that means, is that oftentimes people aren’t treated for health issues that they have.”

READ MORE: When foreign workers arrive, orchardists will have pandemic precautions to consider

Once the program was approved, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry decreed that all such workers needed to be quarantined for two weeks when they arrived in Vancouver while there were a number of rules published for farmers to follow.

“It’s not a matter of what we think, it’s a matter of what the rules are and what the protocols are and what those guidelines say,” Lucas said. “That’s what the growers need to follow.”

The key guideline Lucas pointed to is from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and is called: Protecting Farm Workers and Temporary Foreign Workers.

“Facilities and services (including meals, communication systems, laundry) should be organized on site and provided to enable workers to remain in camps on days off whenever possible, and personal purchases can be arranged without workers visiting nearby communities,” it states. “Traveling to a grocery store or other necessary public establishment should be limited to one person per group who will also buy food and essentials for others.”

While Cohen understood that there was only a verbal statement made to Bylands’ workers not to leave the farm, she’s been told that Coral Beach requires workers to sign an agreement before they can work there. She’s not yet been able to obtain a copy.

Geen refused to comment on that point but, in his statement, said his policies are not racist since he employs Canadians as well as workers from a number of foreign countries who all have to follow the same rules.

“Upon arrival into our accommodation, Canadian staff or foreign, all are expected to remain away from environments where social distancing is not possible,” he wrote, noting they can go out for walks and to local parks.

He wrote that farmers are in a no-win situation with this issue.

“If we allow our workers into the community, and they acquire COVID-19 and infect their housemates and workmates, we are criticized for being irresponsible,” he wrote. “On the other hand, if we restrict our workers to the farms and on site accommodation (delivering groceries and amenities to these staff), we are stigmatized as abusers of human rights.”

Cohen is encouraging people to write the B.C. ministers of health and labour to change these practices.

She’s heard of at least one other worker who may have been sent home but also knows of farms where workers are allowed to go offsite so has singled out just three businesses in her release.

The organization is also looking into possible legal action.

Regardless of how the battle plays out in terms of how the COVID-19 rules are interpreted, the real losers at this time are Zavala and Molina who are now back in Mexico trying to find work.

“It’s very devastating,” Cohen said. “They were expecting to be here until September or October and they were counting on the money they were going to earn here to support their families – their children and their parents. And, because of COVID, the Mexican economy is even worse off than it normally is so there really are no jobs for them to get. It’s really hard for them.”

A fundraising effort is being launched on the Mexican version of gofundme to help the couple.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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