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Fruit pickers coming to B.C. need subsidized housing to curb COVID-19 outbreak: advocate

Fruit pickers coming to B.C. need subsidized housing to curb COVID-19 outbreak: advocate

A coronavirus outbreak among fruit pickers in B.C.’s Okanagan is all but inevitable unless stringent protocols are brought in, domestic workers in the region say.

In the coming weeks, up to 1,500 domestic farm workers, many of whom hail from Quebec, will flood into the south Okanagan in search of short-term work during the harvest season.

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

David Olivier-Demers, a French Canadian with 18 years’ experience working in the region, said the risk of an outbreak is high, especially given some working conditions.

“A lot of farms are really small in scale, and there’s barely accommodation like toilets. On some farms, you’d be happy to have a flushing toilet or you’d be happy to have a place just to take a shower,” Demers said.

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David Olivier-Demers works on a farm in the Okanagan.
David Olivier-Demers works on a farm in the Okanagan. Submitted

Domestic farm workers should be treated the same as temporary foreign workers, Demers said, and have to undergo 14 days of self-isolation at a hotel or motel, paid for by government.

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

Quebec has the highest number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, at more than 24,000 as of Monday morning, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Meanwhile, B.C. reports fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases.

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“When the French Canadians are coming to B.C., nobody is giving them two weeks with a place to stay,” he said.

Alix Longland, a former farm worker who now advocates for migrant workers, has written to local and provincial politicians pleading for adequate preventative measures to protect the South Okanagan from an outbreak.

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Alix Longland picking grapes on an Okanagan farm.
Alix Longland picking grapes on an Okanagan farm. Submitted

“There needs to be more than just Loose Bay campground being open as a solution,” Longland told Global News. “There needs to be support for farmers to be able to give proper, adequate, safe living spaces to farm workers.”

The Loose Bay campground, north of Oliver, is a popular starting point for fruit pickers. The operator still plans to open on May 1, with COVID-19 protocols in place.

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

But Longland echoes Demers’ call and said the government should subsidize hotel and motel rooms, which are sitting empty because of the public health crisis, for domestic farm workers to self-isolate.

“This is the most ideal option in my head because this allows people to have their own individual safe living space and it also allows them to self-quarantine when they are symptomatic, which is something you can’t do if you are living in a tent or a camper,” Longland said.

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READ MORE: Okanagan apple orchardists say they’re feeling financial squeeze

The public should also be educated about the essential service that domestic farm workers provide to the local economy and to food security, she added, as many workers experience discrimination and stigma in their host communities.

She also recommended a designated grocery shopping hour or pick-up option for farm workers to reduce contact with others.

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

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a 10-page public health order on April 23 for employers and workers in the agricultural, aquacultural, forestry and resource sectors, focusing on sanitation and physical-distancing. She did not make it mandatory for all workers to self-isolate when coming to B.C.

The order dictates that employers must develop a COVID-19 infection prevention and control protocol, maintain high levels of hygiene, and provide for a rapid response if a worker develops symptoms, including procedures to isolate the worker and provide access to a health professional.

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

Workers are ordered to follow their employers’ protocols, including diligent hand hygiene, staying two metres away from others, staying in their accommodation on days they’re not at work, and avoid unnecessary visits to public establishments.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated on Monday that inter-provincial travel restrictions are not in place.

Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson said while she understands the community’s concerns, fruit pickers are essential Canadian workers.

“They are needed here in the South Okanagan to pick our cherry crop, to do the farm work that we don’t have other people to do.”

Larson said she couldn’t comment on if fruit pickers from high-risk COVID-19 areas should be required to self-isolate upon entry to B.C., saying decisions are made by health officials.

The ministry of agriculture says staff are continuing to work with the industry on solutions with respect to accommodations for domestic workers and how to address issues like offsite camping.