Okanagan growers relieved seasonal workers exempt from COVID-19 travel ban

A helicopter hovers over a Kelowna Cherry orchard in this June 2017 file photo. Bob Felker

The B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association is welcoming news that temporary foreign workers, including seasonal agricultural workers, will be exempt from federal air travel restrictions meant to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This [exemption] was essential, really, to the continuity of our businesses and being able to produce the affordable food that Canadians need,” Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, said.

The exemption, announced Friday, comes after Transport Canada said earlier in the week that foreign nationals won’t be allowed onboard flights into Canada other than trans-border flights.

READ MORE: Temporary foreign workers exempt from some COVID-19 travel restrictions

Travel by temporary foreign workers will also be considered essential travel for land border restrictions.

In announcing the exemption for seasonal agricultural workers, the federal government said there will be “health screening protocols before travel,” and workers arriving in Canada must self-isolate for 14 days.

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“First priority is safety of Canadians,” Lucas said.

“We need to meet stringent requirements on protection of health. Once we are able to do that, then we would be able to access the program.”

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With Canadians in many sectors facing coronavirus-related layoffs or work stoppages, Lucas said there are also job opportunities for locals at Okanagan orchards.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Uncertainty over temporary foreign workers worries Atlantic farmers

He said help wanted ads are posted on a federal job board called Job Bank.

“We received the message from many people that they thought we should employ Canadians first, and in fact we do,” Lucas said.

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“We will be short of workers this year, so I would encourage any interested locals to look at Job Bank. Our peak need will be starting in late-June for the tree-fruit sector.”

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Lucas said there are already quite a few temporary foreign workers at Okanagan vineyards, who arrived before the travel restrictions were put in place.

However, the changing rules around international travel have delayed or the arrival of some tree-fruit workers.

READ MORE: Air Canada to lay off over 5K flight attendants as coronavirus halts travel: union

Lucas said it is unclear when the temporary foreign workers will resume arriving in the Okanagan, as a decrease in the number of international flights is creating an additional challenge.

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He said the growers may have to charter airplanes to get workers to Canada.

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—With files from the Canadian Press