Hundreds of migrant workers among B.C. wildfire evacuees. What do they face?

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Premier Eby to tour fire zone area Tuesday'
B.C. wildfires: Premier Eby to tour fire zone area Tuesday
WATCH ABOVE: At least 50 structures have been destroyed in West Kelowna, and Richard Zussman looks ahead to Premier David Eby and several of his ministers set to tour the fire zone – Aug 22, 2023

Hundreds of migrant workers are among those evacuated from farms threatened by the wildfires in British Columbia’s Interior, putting strain on already crowded housing units and raising concerns about unsafe working conditions amid the smoky air, advocates say.

Byron Cruz, a member of the Migrant Rights Network, has been co-ordinating evacuation and relief efforts in B.C. He said an estimated 600 migrant workers have already been evacuated in the Okanagan region. Another 80 were hoping to fly back home as their seasonal work came to an end but were unable to do so with airports being shut.

“Some of them had to leave their farms right away and they were sent to these houses that are overcrowded,” Cruz said. “There is a lack of food in some cases, different organizations have been around bringing food to the workers because it’s really hard for them to go shopping.

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“Who is responsible for accommodation? Workers are in overcrowded homes, in homes that were already precarious.”

Hugo Velazquez, senior manager of the Migrant Workers Program at the B.C.-based non-profit MOSAIC (Multi-lingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities), said their organization was working with agricultural workers and migrant workers evacuated across the province amid the fires.

Nine workers were rescued from the area of Sorrento, which is on the shore of Shuswap Lake in a region beset by flames and subject to evacuations over recent days.

This included five temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and four Canadians. MOSAIC said they looked “physically well to the eye” but “were quite overtaken by the experience they lived as they had to drive through fire on both sides of the road during the evacuation.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Extraordinary efforts and sacrifices praised'
B.C. wildfires: Extraordinary efforts and sacrifices praised

MOSAIC said that in Kelowna, 160 female TFWs were evacuated to Big White, a ski resort about 60 kilometres southeast of the city.

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A large employer in Kelowna relocated most of its workers, many of whom are heading home now that the season is coming to an end. However, the employer has sought support for 40 of its foreign workers. On another farm, 30 workers from El Salvador ran out of money for food after they had to extend their stay till plane ticket prices came down, the organization said, and activists on the ground had to provide them food packets.

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Air quality warning for much of the province'
B.C. wildfires: Air quality warning for much of the province

Cruz said in many parts of B.C., while there are no fires, air quality has plummeted to dangerous levels.

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“Air pollution is very bad in some places,” he said. “Some workers are refusing to do unsafe work.”

Velazquez said in the Southern Interior village of Keremeos, “workers are asking if they have to go back to work in the smoky conditions.”

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“WorkSafeBC has been contacted and their officer will be going to the farms to talk to both employers and workers,” she said. “WorkSafeBC guidelines have been sent to all local partners and employers.”

WorkSafeBC told Global News that employers had a responsibility to protect their workers amid wildfires and smoke.

“As it relates to wildfires and air quality, employers must eliminate or minimize smoke exposure to workers, and provide workspaces with cleaner air as the most effective means of protections,” Yesenia Dhott, WorkSafeBC spokesperson, told Global News.

Cruz said that while police officers have been visiting farms to make sure workers are made aware of the evacuation orders, there was a greater need to translate government orders into different languages, such as Spanish.

“Some of the workers speak English, but (lack of) communication is a concern,” he said.

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Premier Eby to tour fire zone area Tuesday'
B.C. wildfires: Premier Eby to tour fire zone area Tuesday

He said workers also need answers around compensation for days of work missed.

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“I will say in order of priority, (the demands of workers) will be access to accommodation with dignity, like proper accommodation. Second one is the translation of the orders provided by the federal and provincial government,” he said. “And the third is also compensation. They need answers about who will be compensating them for these days that they cannot work.”

Velazquez said, “Lost wages during natural disaster are a concern because during the BC Floods it was practically impossible for TFWs to access EI which is discounted from them regularly.”

“Employers are also usually exempt from paying lost wages during natural disasters; this can cause pressure on the TFWs to work in the haze and dangerous conditions, which can affect their health.”

More than 27,000 British Columbians have been displaced from their homes by wildfires, with another 35,000 on standby to leave at a moment’s notice.

It’s the worst wildfire season in the province’s history, with more than 1.7 million hectares burned, an area three times greater than the size of Prince Edward Island. That comes amid the worst wildfire season in the country’s history as well.

— with files from Global News’ Elizabeth McSheffrey

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