OLIVER – With foreign and domestic workers starting to arrive in the Okanagan for another season, growers are grappling with provincial health guidelines designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s going to start the first week of May for grapes, doing some shoot-thinning in vineyards,” says Ron Forrest, the BC Fruit Growers Association liaison who connects domestic workers, including hundreds of Quebec youth, with local growers each summer. “People should start coming in between the first week of May and the third week of May.”
Given this year’s anticipated labour shortage, he was on the ground by mid-April, scouting out local campsites – legal and illegal – for workers. While the workers will be in high demand this year, the communities where they work have also voiced concerns about the seasonal influx.
Several local mayors and the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce have all expressed fears regarding domestic migrants. Some residents worry they could incubate disease in their encampments and facilitate the spread of COVID-19 in the Okanagan.
While several provinces require new arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days, even if arriving from within Canada, BC has opted for a far more liberal regime. It has so far rejected the implementation of checkpoints or travel restrictions within the province.
However, Quebec, which has the highest rate of known infections in the country, has stringent regulations on the movement of people.
“Such travel should be confined to trips for medical reasons and work when teleworking is not possible,” Quebec regulations state. “In order to protect the most vulnerable populations, checkpoints will be established to limit travel into and out of certain territories.”
Growers are working to address the concerns. A key element is the Loose Bay Campground on Secrest Road in Oliver, which typically sees about 300 workers living there during the summer. Cherry grower Greg Norton was instrumental in its development and fellow grower and friend Allan Patton chairs the Loose Bay Campground Society, which runs it. The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen designated it a campground for seasonal workers in 2017. Campers pay $5 a day or $30 a week.
“Most places don’t really have any accommodations, especially down south,” says Forrest. “One of the most important things that we have to do is get Loose Bay going.”
Several upgrades have improved servicing at the campground and more are planned this summer to ensure campers respect public health orders when it opens on May 1.
“We’re going to try to add WiFi and washing machines so people don’t have the need to go down to town that often,” says Forrest.
Local officials say Loose Bay residents will be treated as a single group.
Provincial regulations governing farm workers during the pandemic were finalized on April 6. Workers must receive training on COVID-19 protocols prior to beginning work, including sanitization. The rules require employers ensure adequate distancing on the job, including during breaks, access to handwashing stations and sanitizer, and recommend providing every worker with a personal picking bucket or whatever tools they need.
“Where it is not possible to provide personal tools, the shared tools and equipment must be wiped down and cleaned with a disinfecting agent such as disposable wipes or a diluted bleach solution between uses by different employees,” the rules state.
“If you share a ladder, you’ve got to be able to wash a ladder,” says Forrest, noting that the boxes workers fill with fruit are another conundrum. “They fill it up, and then one person takes it in their hands and takes it to the tractor. How are we going to do this? Are we going to have to sanitize them before? After? These are all things that we’re going to have to figure out.”
To support on-farm measures, AgSafe BC recently made COVID-19 workplace safety materials available on its website. These include prevention procedures, an exposure control plan and employer protocols for a pandemic. Safety notices for workers and signage is also available.
Providers of essential services are protected by provincial order from liability in the event workers, by their own “gross negligence,” become infected.
However, BCFGA warns growers to expect lower productivity this year as a result of public health rules.
“Planning for lower production may be prudent,” it advised members, encouraging them to avoid sinking too much effort into their least-profitable blocks. “On the other hand, it is expected that with reduced supply, produce prices will be increasing.”
The extra cash could come in handy, as strict guidelines governing foreign workers have upped the cost of that option for growers this year. Charter flights from Mexico to Vancouver, including transfer to the Okanagan, is expected to be upwards of $1,200 per worker. An initial flight of 157 workers landed at Vancouver on April 16, and the province expected up to 1,000 workers by April 30. An additional 3,000 were expected to follow. All told, the province welcomes about 10,000 foreign farm workers each year.
The province is covering the cost of housing and meals for incoming foreign workers during the 14-day isolation period required arrival. Ottawa is also providing employers with $1,500 per worker to cover other costs, including the $900 in wages owing during the quarantine period.
Delays in the arrival of those workers may mean some tasks go unfilled, while some workers may opt not to come during the pandemic. Another slice of the local workforce – students on working holiday visas – have been shut out by border closures. They typically account for about 15% of orchard workers.
“I think we’re not going to have enough people,” says Forrest. “One thing we’re looking at is, hopefully, some locals. That’s what we would like to have.”
While farm work would be a steep learning curve for people who might be used to working at local hotels and restaurants, the opportunities exist.
“When I first came to the Okanagan, I would be picking beside locals,” says Forrest. “This year, I’m thinking there’s no jobs at McDonald’s or anything, so hopefully we can get a few of them to come and help us.”