Lower Mainland organization donates bikes to isolated migrant workers

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Vancouver non-profits and a group of UBC students are working together to offer autonomy and accessible transportation to agricultural migrant workers by giving them bikes. 

Advocates say migrant workers often have no means of transportation and have to get by with whatever their employers provide, which makes getting groceries, exploring the local area, and getting to necessary appointments a lot more difficult. 

With the help of Vancouver-based organizations like Watari and Bici Libre, workers can access bikes for free, while also learning how to fix and maintain them. 

Ingrid Mendez, the director of Watari Counselling and Support Services Society, says — in addition to bikes being practical, they give workers more freedom. 

“It’s a really great tool for them too, if they work on a bigger farm sometimes their housing is a bit farther away from where their work is. So, this bike will help them get to their actual work site on time, in a much better way and faster. And this will give them the opportunity to sleep a few more minutes,” she explains. 

Mendez, alongside her partner Byron Cruz, are the heart of Watari’s bike initiative. They are on the ground delivering the bikes, contacting workers, and providing other supports.

However, the bike initiative was first started by a group of UBC students. 

Lauren Warbeck was inspired to take action when she heard about the transportation struggles faced by workers while doing her masters research. Using her skills as a bike mechanic she began Bici Libre in 2015 with Marv Clark, who continues to volunteer and run the program. 

Bici Libre works by fixing old, abandoned, and donated bikes and giving them to community organizations like Watari, who then distribute them to the communities in need. 

Rachel Brydolf-Horwitz, is a coordinator at Bici Libre. She says the organization’s founders stepped up when they identified a need. 

“They saw this opportunity to provide some form of meaningful assistance to a lot of these workers, many of whom live where they work, they don’t have a lot of mobility options. Any sort of autonomy is really important,” she explains. 

Along with the bikes from Bici Libre, Watari also receives donations from the Latin American community across the Lower Mainland. 

Enrique Vertti owns Bikes and Blades, and has donated many bikes over the years to the cause.

“Myself, from the bike industry, I know how important bikes are. You don’t have to pay for gas, you don’t have to pay for insurance, [the workers] can just use it as transportation which is really important,” he says. 

Despite the struggles he has faced with his own business, Vertti keeps donating because he knows how vital the support is for these workers.

The bike initiative also runs workshops that help people learn how to fix, maintain and even build their own bikes. 

“Basically it’s about giving them tools and skills that they can use longer-term in their lives,” Cruz explains. 

“It’s also that idea of creating that solidarity among them. Once one learns how to fix a bike, then they can teach others and also fix bikes for each other. So it’s another way of strengthening those networks in the farms as well.” 

Given restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Watari and Bici Libre have had to adjust the way they provide support. 

Often we will visit workers over the summer at farms or events and repair bikes on-site, although COVID-19 has put a stop to those kinds of activities in order to protect workers from the virus and from retaliation from their employers,” says Brydolf-Horwitz

Deliveries to farms in the Interior were postponed due to provincial travel restrictions, but with restrictions lifting the project is slowly re-opening to reach as many workers as possible.

But for Mendez, Cruz, and Brydolf-Horwitz it isn’t just about the bikes. It’s about supporting the people who do difficult work, often at great personal cost and in very challenging conditions.   

“When we go to the farms after the delivery of bikes, we see workers coming back with their shopping. They have all their shopping on the back of the bike rack, and you know, having those big smiles on their faces that they finally have this tool. That’s really powerful for them, but also for us,” Mendez says. 

Canada’s agricultural industry has the highest rate of on-farm job vacancy and hires about 60,000 temporary migrant workers a year to alleviate labour shortages. 

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