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COVID-19 travel restrictions challenging for B.C. farmers, migrant workers

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — COVID-19 and travel restrictions are making it harder for B.C. farmers to get the foreign agricultural workers they so heavily rely on.

The BC Agriculture Council says 800 foreign workers were expected to arrive in the province in January, but 100 are still in their home countries.

Executive Director Reg Ens says workers remain eager to come to B.C. because their families rely on their income, but logistical challenges are holding them up.

Workers, like all other travellers, have to produce negative COVID-19 tests before boarding their flights.

“Of the workers that didn’t arrive, a third of them, approximately, were related to challenges in getting testing or not being able to get the testing prior to departure,” he explains.

“If you’re in a major urban centre you might be able to get tested, but if you’re in a rural part of Mexico or Guatemala — or even a rural part of B.C. — there would be challenges and getting testing.”

RELATED: COVID-19 concerns mean many migrant workers in B.C. won’t go home for Christmas

The halting of commercial flights to and from ‘sun destinations’ in Mexico and the Caribbean is a mother hurdle, as flights now need to be chartered.

“It’s probably about a 50 per cent increase in flight costs for the farmers. Under B.C. rules, the employer has to pay for all transportation costs. So that’s all borne by the farmer,” he notes.

And a ticket for a chartered flight can’t just be exchanged, so if a worker doesn’t get on the plane the entire cost is a loss.

Currently, B.C.-based farmers are focusing on transporting workers from Mexico, but Ens says in Ontario plans are being made to charter flights from Jamaica.

Each year between 8,000 and 10,000 workers come to work on B.C. farms.

Ens says he is grateful the province has set up a centralized place for incoming workers to quarantine.

“All foreign workers, when they arrive at YVR, they’re transported as per regulations to a local hotel, they’re put up in separate rooms, and they’re monitored by Vancouver Coastal Health, and the government agencies that are supporting them, to complete their full 14-day quarantine before they travel to the farms,” Ens says.

Travelling for any reason is stressful during a pandemic, and Ens says farmers recognize what these workers are risking this season.

“We do realize that it’s a sacrifice for them to be away from home, and a little bit concerning to travel. All of us are wondering what the rules are going to be tomorrow, they are wondering that too. We just really want to appreciate the work that they do.”

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