Wellness checks underway for migrant workers amid B.C. wildfires

Click to play video: '‘I’m running out of underwear, too, folks’ West Kelowna fire chief understands evacuee frustrations all too well'
‘I’m running out of underwear, too, folks’ West Kelowna fire chief understands evacuee frustrations all too well
WATCH ABOVE: 'I'm running out of underwear, too, folks' West Kelowna fire chief understands evacuee frustrations all too well – Aug 23, 2023

Federal government officials are performing wellness checks on temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who have been affected by wildfires in British Columbia, an Employment and Social Development Canada spokesperson told Global News on Wednesday.

“The Government of Canada takes the protection of temporary foreign workers’ (TFWs) health and safety seriously. Ensuring the health and safety of temporary foreign workers while in Canada is a key priority,” Samuelle Carbonneau, ESDC spokesperson, told Global News in a statement.

The statement added, “ESDC is conducting wellness checks with employers affected by the wildfires to make sure temporary foreign workers are safe and have access to basic necessities. In addition, the Program has been in communication with the Government of British Columbia.”

ESDC is also running a tip-line, available in over 200 languages, and an online reporting tool where TFWs or other interested parties can report situations that compromise the health and safety of workers.

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Hundreds of migrant workers are among those evacuated from farms threatened by 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 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 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. Who is responsible for accommodation? Workers are in overcrowded homes, in homes that were already precarious.”

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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 in recent days.

This included five 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.”

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

One farm’s workers, 30 people 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.

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

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

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

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfire evacuee didn’t think he would ‘have a house’ anymore'
B.C. wildfire evacuee didn’t think he would ‘have a house’ anymore

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.

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

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

“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.

— with files from Global News’ Elizabeth McSheffrey

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