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Extreme weather is sending Okanagan migrant farmworkers home early

Fires forced hundreds of workers to evacuate from West Kelowna and Lake Country
File photo. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/ The Tyee

Hundreds of temporary foreign farmworkers have faced job and income losses as wildfires and heat waves wreak havoc on British Columbia’s crops.

Non-profit groups say some farmworkers stand to lose income as farms shorten or suspend operations because of extreme heat and devastating fires.

Some are calling on the federal government to issue emergency work permits allowing those workers to take other jobs. Their current permits generally allow them to work for one designated employer.

“Regrettably, it is highly likely that these workers will face unemployment for an extended period — not due to a shortage of labour market demand, but solely due to the unjust constraints imposed upon them by Canada’s immigration system,” wrote Migrant Workers Centre board chair Maria Cano in an Aug. 19 letter to federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller.

B.C. farmers hire about 6,000 foreign seasonal workers annually. Hiring peaks in the summer when cherries, peaches, berries and the rest of the province’s bounty is ready to be picked.

The BC Fruit Growers’ Association estimates that migrant workers today make up more than half of members’ workforces. And workers often depend on the income they make in B.C. to provide for their families in Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica and elsewhere.

But catastrophic climate events have put their income in jeopardy. Fires forced hundreds of workers to evacuate from West Kelowna and Lake Country earlier this month. Others have tried to work through the heat and smoke that has blanketed the region.

Now it appears some may head home much sooner than they had hoped.

Perla Villegas, an outreach worker for both Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture and the Migrant Workers Centre, says she knows dozens of workers in the Kelowna region who were sent home after their employers decided to end the season weeks earlier than anticipated.

Villegas said many of those workers lost thousands of dollars of anticipated income as a result.

“All of them are very sad. It’s really frustrating that they couldn’t stay longer here in Kelowna,” Villegas said. “To employers they are not useful anymore, especially if the land is not available to work.”

Raul Gatica, the executive director of the non-profit group Dignidad Migrante, has also called on the federal government to issue emergency work permits in the wake of the fires.

“So many people are calling, saying they are returning early,” he said. Emergency work permits would allow them to seek other jobs.

Hugo Velazquez, who is helping co-ordinate the emergency response for the workers, says hundreds have been evacuated and displaced so far. He confirmed some workers have gone home early because their employers have cut or curtailed operations.

In other cases, Velazquez says the extreme heat has created an unusual gap between the end of the berry-picking season and the start of the apple season, meaning some employees may wait weeks without pay before they can resume work.

“Usually they’ll go from cherries and berries and they’ll wait a week and they go into apples,” said Velazquez, a senior manager with the non-profit MOSAIC. “But if you add climate change, they might wait 19 days to be transferred.”

Migrant farmhands in B.C. travel to the province under two federal programs: the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, or SAWP, and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Under both programs, migrant farmworkers can typically only work for a single employer at a single location. The SAWP program allows workers to transfer between two different employers, but an employee needs permission from both their prior employer, their new employer and their respective consulate.

Amanda Aziz, a lawyer with the Migrant Workers Centre, says that makes it extremely difficult for workers to arrange a new job on short notice. Many do not speak English and may not have access to a computer, Aziz added.

“We are hearing from some employers that that’s it, so workers are being organized to go home,” Aziz said.

Reg Ens is the general manager of the Western Agricultural Labour Initiative, an arm of the B.C. Agriculture Council that helps facilitate migrant farm work in the province. He said he was not sure how many workers have had to return home but confirmed that extreme weather had played havoc with the typical growing season for apples, cherries and other crops, upending the harvest schedule for some workers.

Byron Cruz, the executive director of Santuary Health, a non-profit assisting migrant workers, said one group of four workers reported they were being sent home a full two months ahead of schedule because of the effect heat had on crops.

He says other workers have reported losing income because of fire evacuations, too.

In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada wrote that temporary workers “here on an employer specific work permit and working for an employer affected by the wildfires may extend their stay until their workplace reopens.”

It also said an employee could obtain authorization to work for a new employer within 10 to 15 business days.

But many workers either cannot arrange that or cannot afford to go weeks without pay.

Aziz said many migrant workers often pay thousands of dollars to set up a job in Canada by way of third-party recruiters — something illegal in this country but poorly enforced overseas.

“Sometimes workers arrive even in debt, having taken out loans,” Aziz said.

Velazquez said displaced workers are now able to claim up to $500 in lost wages and an additional $500 for expenses. He said 25 workers have made claims so far.

Aziz’s organization has asked the government to issue emergency work permits for up to 12 months for workers affected by the fires.

In her letter, Cano says that time period is consistent with the department’s usual guidelines for emergency work permits. Cano has also asked the government to allow workers to claim employment insurance, something migrant workers pay into but typically can’t claim, she said.

During the 2021 floods, Velasquez said affected migrant workers found they were not able to claim those funds. Velasquez said that has put pressure on workers in the past to go to work even when it is unsafe.

Velasquez said partner agencies in the Okanagan have helped secure food for hundreds of workers.

Villegas said she had also helped co-ordinate food deliveries for farm workers. She added that some employees told her they were still being expected to work, despite the thick haze in the air.

READ MORE: Infrared aerial scans could change status of Kelowna, Lake Country wildfires

READ MORE: Wind whips up more wildfire anxiety in parts of B.C. as rainfall stalls

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