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Coronavirus: Growing concern about possible influx of fruit pickers to Okanagan

Coronavirus: Growing concern about possible influx of fruit pickers to Okanagan

There are increasing calls for government to mitigate the potential risk of out-of-province domestic farm workers travelling to the Okanagan to harvest crops this growing season, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Migrant workers are an essential part of the Okanagan fruit growing industry and roughly 3,000 backpackers travel to the valley every year for short-term work in orchards, farms and fields, according to the BC Fruit Growers’ Association.

Half of the fruit pickers travel to the province from Quebec and half are from outside the country.

Unlike temporary foreign workers, farmers are not required to provide housing for domestic fruit pickers who often camp outdoors, travelling from farm to farm up the valley as the fruit ripens.

The transient nature of the domestic farm labour force combined with the spike in COVID-19 cases in Quebec has some South Okanagan mayors concerned about public health.

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READ MORE: Canada to allow seasonal foreign workers but they must self-isolate, minister says

Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen says an incoming deluge of out-of-province fruit pickers could increase the risk of a community outbreak.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm, we have a community here, everybody is living here, living this way for a number of weeks, and we have another group coming here that doesn’t necessarily have the housing to self-isolate and the resources to take on the responsibilities of the provincial health orders,” he said on Wednesday.

B.C. will oversee temporary foreign workers quarantine
B.C. will oversee temporary foreign workers quarantine

Johansen said the Town of Oliver will be ramping up enforcement of provincial health orders though its bylaws department.

South Okanagan mayors are asking the provincial government to implement additional measures to support migrant workers and prevent transmission of the virus, he added.

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“Quebec has almost 10 times more confirmed cases of COVID than we do in B.C., leading the provinces in Canada, so it’s a concern,” he said.

“I’m concerned that people could come here and think everything is pretty good here, we are doing really well and you can let your guard down, but you can’t let your guard down.”

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

As of Wednesday, there are more than 14,000 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Quebec and 1,500 cases in B.C., according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

Rick Knodel, Electoral Area “C” director of rural Oliver with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, said the district is working with management at the Loose Bay campground north of Oliver to implement COVID-19 protocols before the camp opens to fruit pickers on May 1.

“There will be additional sanitation stations, hand wash stations, we are looking to rent those right now, so it’s imperative that everyone keep their hands clean,” he said.

More temporary foreign workers in West Kelowna test positive for coronavirus
More temporary foreign workers in West Kelowna test positive for coronavirus

Knodel notes that providing campgrounds for fruit pickers is crucial to the province’s agricultural sector. Farmers are reliant on the labour force to meet production targets and maintain Canada’s food supply system, he said.

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“This type of camp is absolutely critical for the farming in this area where you have smaller farms that can’t afford foreign workers, they have to rely on domestic transient workers to fill the holes.” Knodel said.

“A lot of the farms have single crops so their usage is low. Foreign workers, you can’t bring them in for just a week, you need them here for four months.”

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

Glen Lucas, general manager of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, said the organization is rolling out the welcome mat to Quebec fruit pickers in the face of a labour shortage.

“I think we will be short of labour even with the local unemployed workers, not only are those backpackers who are international workers not coming, but also the seasonal agricultural workers, the Mexicans and Caribbeans, they are coming later so we are already behind in terms of workforce,” he said.

Lucas acknowledged the concern among some local residents and politicians.

Okanagan advocate group looking for more government oversight at farms during pandemic
Okanagan advocate group looking for more government oversight at farms during pandemic

“We think that those are valid concerns and there are protocols that are being development by the public health officers and Emergency Management BC,” he said.

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Lucas said it’s up to public health officials to determine if out-of-province farm workers should be required to self-isolate for two weeks before entering the farms, similar to foreign workers.

READ MORE: ‘Disaster’ possible if COVID-19 protections not given to migrant workers: advocates

“If we are short 10 per cent on our workforce from prior years, we are down 10 per cent less crop, and I think for food security and contribution to the economy, we need to get this crop harvested,” he said.

Meanwhile, stringent protocols have been put in place to regulate the movement of temporary foreign workers who enter B.C. under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

On Tuesday, the provincial government announced it will oversee and fund the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for new foreign workers entering the province.

Canadian farmers and food processors will also get $50 million in federal funding to ensure temporary foreign workers comply with the mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.

The $1,500 per worker can be used to offset their salaries, or supply appropriate accommodation for the quarantine period, said Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.