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Agriculture worker conditions in Okanagan a ‘ticking time bomb’ for COVID-19: advocate group

Click to play video 'Okanagan advocate group looking for more government oversight at farms during pandemic' Okanagan advocate group looking for more government oversight at farms during pandemic
A group that advocates for seasonal agriculture workers in the Okanagan Valley says an outbreak at a local nursery business should be a wake-up call for more government oversight of living and working conditions for foreigners. Travis Lowe reports. – Apr 2, 2020

A group that speaks on behalf of seasonal agriculture workers in the Okanagan Valley believes the government needs to better monitor living and working conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Robyn Gunn with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) says the outbreak of the virus at a West Kelowna business, where so far 19 workers have tested positive, is unfortunate but not surprising.

She calls housing for migrant workers a “ticking time bomb.”

“Given what is happening right now we need to really look at what is actually happening on farms and we need to improve the standards,” Gunn said. “We need to have more oversight. We need to have more inspection.”

READ MORE: More temporary foreign workers test positive for coronavirus in West Kelowna

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Agricultural producers are on the honour system when it comes to enforcing 14-day quarantines on foreign workers who arrived in Canada since provincial and federal orders were issued in late March.

Housing conditions for workers, including sanitation to prevent the spread of the virus, is also up to farmers, which Gunn said is worrisome.

“Self-regulation does not work. It has never worked,” Gunn said.

Former orchardist Robert Hogue agrees with Gunn’s concerns.

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

Hogue wants to stop the seasonal agricultural worker program in Canada during the pandemic.

“Farmers are under the eight-ball right now,” Hogue said. “They are going to find themselves …scrambling to get work done and what are they going to do? Many of them are going to cheat.”

The B.C. government announced that the Medical Services Plan will cover the cost of COVID-19 medical treatment for temporary foreign workers just as it would for locals.

Gunn is hoping the government steps up enforcement on agricultural workers living conditions to ensure the entire community is protected during the pandemic.

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READ MORE: 5 new COVID-19 deaths in B.C., restrictions to last until ‘at least the summer’: officials

Seventy-five workers have been impacted by the outbreak at Bylands Nurseries Ltd., including 63 migrant workers and 12 local workers, according to the Interior Health Authority.

The migrant workers arrived in Kelowna from outside of Canada on March 12.