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'We just left': Evacuated migrant workers face uncertainty amid B.C. wildfires

Hundreds of migrant workers evacuated in the Okanagan Valley have been left in limbo due to wildfires and smoke. Without pay, they say they face an uncertain future.
A group of migrant workers, mostly from Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico, line up for aid at Big White ski resort following evacuation Kelowna-area wildfires.

​A group helping migrant workers across B.C. is calling on the provincial and federal governments to step up supports after hundreds were displaced by wildfires.

The Dignidad Migrant Society, a non-profit that provides services to migrant workers, says the recent fires in the Okanagan have displaced nearly 600 temporary foreign workers who harvest and pack fruit in the region’s orchards and wineries. Over the last week, the group has stepped in to provide food and shelter to many of them, but they say their efforts are falling short.

“Their employers say everybody has to leave because the fire is coming,” said Raul Gatica, assistant to Dignidad Migrante’s board of directors.

“Those people don’t know where to go.”

Gatica said in Lake Country, about 200 migrant workers have been moved twice, living in everything from tents to shelters.

Leonardo, an undocumented worker from Mexico City, said when the fires came, the orchards filled with smoke and everyone started feeling nauseous.

“The smoke started to affect us. We started spitting black,” he told Glacier Media.

“It hurts the lungs. It’s hard to breathe.”

Then the evacuations came. Some temporary foreign workers who pack cherries were sent on buses to Big White, a nearby ski resort. Three women Glacier Media spoke to said they had been put on a bus leaving Lake Country and had received food. Some praised their employers for getting them out on time.

But Leonardo said many of them are afraid to speak out because it could affect their ability to work in the future. Glacier Media agreed not to fully identify the workers in this story.

'We just left'

Leonardo is among several workers who don’t have legal status to work in Canada and said they were left to escape on their own.

“We left with what little we had, no clothes… on public transport,” he said.

Ernesto, another undocumented Mexican migrant worker, said he also fled to Kelowna on a public transport with a handful of other workers.

“The owner didn’t say anything. We just left,” he said.

Ernesto bounced around, filling out paper work, being told to go to another shelter, always wary that he could be identified as an illegal worker and sent home.

When Ernesto went to fill out forms for the evacuation, they asked for an address. But identifying a farm where they work risks having the owner get angry with them and not hire them back.

“There’s no connections here… We talk really under the table about our status,” he said. “What can we say? We are people without permission to work.”

Earlier this week, Ernesto was among a group of migrant workers who were offered a temporary stay at Prospera Place, a hockey arena converted into a shelter that has since shut. Others have sought temporary shelter at churches. 

With the cherry season ending early this year, many workers have been left with a hard choice — find a new farm to work on or go home. Ernesto is planning to return to Mexico. But this is Leonardo’s first time in Canada and he said he has hardly earned enough to make the trip worth it. He plans to find a place to camp and look for work on another orchard or farm.

The workers have not been left completely alone. Some undocumented workers told Glacier Media they have received vouchers from Salvation Army. Dignidad Migrante has been helping them navigate the world of evacuations for a group always cautious about identifying who they really are. Some church groups have also stepped up.

But even as threat from encroaching wildfires recedes, those left to work outside in the fields and orchards face another persistent health concern: smoke.

Smoke paralyzing work on some farms

Gatica says other workers across B.C. face complicated choices as smoke descends over farms and orchards.

“Two days ago, one Jamaican guy feinted on the field because [there was] a lot of smoke. He couldn't breathe,” Gatica told Glacier Media.

Fortunately, Gatica said the man had responsible employers who took him to hospital. By putting health above work when smokey conditions get bad, many workers still on farms are could go weeks without pay.

“I don’t blame them,” Gatica said. “They care for the workers, but unfortunately — and they are right — they can’t pay them for the days that they don't work.”

“Here is where the employment insurance will really work.”

Gatica says the challenges temporary foreign workers are facing have changed little since the 2021, when devastating floods hit B.C. The floods prompted at least 150 migrant workers to flee farms throughout the Fraser Valley, in limbo after their source of income was cut off.

Migrant floods
A migrant worker from the Philippines and his employer, farmer Karl Meier, return to check on 240 dairy cows buried in floodwaters in Abbotsford's Sumas Prairie, Nov. 16, 2021. . STEFAN LABBÉ/GLACIER MEDIA

Flood woes return with wildfire evacuations

Gatica says many of the same problems that plagued foreign workers during B.C.’s 2021 floods have come back to haunt workers this summer.

The only thing difference this time, he said, are some shelters, like Prospera, haven’t turned hundreds of workers away. Otherwise, Gatica said Dignidad Migrante was left coordinating help on the ground to make sure people had food and shelter.

“It is a disaster. It’s an emergency,” he said, pointing to provincial and federal supports. “There is no learning. Or they don’t care.”

Many temporary foreign workers are looking for support to help them get through the time they are evacuated and out of work, Gatica said.

Migrant workers who arrive through an official government program aren’t eligible for employment insurance until they have worked 600 hours. But Gatica says his group has identified at least 200 in the Okanagan Valley alone who arrived in early July and haven’t met that benchmark.

Evacuated and unable to work, their employers aren’t paying them. And to make matters worse, they have little access to health care services, Gatica said.

The group is calling for governments to issue emergency open work permits for migrant workers and extend Employment Insurance benefits to those who haven't yet met the standard 600-hour eligibility requirement. It’s also asking for Medical Service Plan (MSP) coverage to all affected temporary foreign workers and those who remain undocumented.

“As migrant workers, we make significant sacrifices in pursuit of the dream of supporting our families back home. We leave behind loved ones and familiar surroundings, only to face isolation, abuse, discrimination, and exploitation in Canada,” wrote the worker-led group to B.C. Premier David Eby and several federal ministers.

“Tragically, when emergencies strike, our isolation is further compounded by the lack of adequate support.”

B.C. government recognizes 'unique challenges'

A spokesperson for the B.C. government said employers of temporary foreign workers are required to provide workers with information about their rights, and “must make all reasonable efforts to get them access to health care services when needed.”

“The B.C. Government’s priority is ensuring that everyone is safe during extreme weather events and disasters in B.C.,” wrote the spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour.

The spokesperson said migrant workers forced to evacuate are eligible to access emergency support services, and can also reach out to their consulate, employer or non-profit support groups for help.

“The Province recognizes that migrant workers and temporary foreign workers have faced unique challenges during evacuations due to possible language barriers, as well as limitations on their employment and income options,” added the ministry spokesperson.

“It is important that everyone, regardless of immigration status, feels comfortable accessing emergency reception centres.”

Glacier Media reached out to the federal government but had not received a response by publication time.

Gatica said that even if added measures are taken to help temporary foreign workers, they’ll do little to help people like Leonardo and Ernesto, who without papers to work in Canada, remain open to uncertainty.

“We are illegal but we are workers. These farms need us,” Leonardo said. “We are essential workers in this province and we are a disposable workforce.”

“All the contradictions accelerated through the fires and smoke.”

He added: “Because of fear, we don’t want to say anything.”