In light of the news coverage of a Brazilian migrant woman’s alleged breakdown in West Kelowna, follow up stories about the deplorable living conditions there, in addition to a story about farm workers being sent home because they couldn’t endure working with poor air quality, Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) is writing to express our deep concern for the safety, mental health, and wellbeing of migrant farm workers in the area.
Migrant workers employed on Okanagan farms frequently face a host of concerning issues that contribute to making their work environments distressing and even dangerous. Beyond the community isolation and language barriers, workers often experience workplace bullying, lack of access to drinking water, sexual harassment by farm bosses, and overcrowded housing conditions. They work long hours with little or no time off and they are constantly pushed to “work faster”. These conditions deny them basic human rights and don’t meet minimum Canadian workplace, housing, and health standards.
In the face of these issues, workers deal with pressure from their employers and the consular officials who represent them to keep their heads down. In many cases, even when farmworkers are suffering from serious health concerns, it is all too often that employers do not do their due diligence of taking them to the doctor. As highlighted in the recent article for the New York Times, speaking out puts not only migrants’ jobs at risk, but often results in workers being deported to their home country and replaced by a more compliant worker. Sadly, in the context of dangerous working conditions, compliance becomes a stand-in for putting your own health and wellbeing, in addition to those of your coworkers, on the line for a few dollars per hour.
The coverage of the incident in West Kelowna involving a migrant farm worker from Brazil was particularly troubling, as the story used a single event to make generalized claims about farmworkers, making them appear as a group to be unstable, potentially criminal, and unsafe. The real story here turned out to be the common substandard living conditions which was overshadowed by the incident.
More recently, with the smoky conditions and low air quality in BC this season, work conditions have worsened for migrant workers who work arduous hours outdoors. There are so many other factors that contribute to exhaustion, such as the fact that often workers do not have access to drinking water at work, have few or no breaks to cool off, and work long hours in the hot sun with few protections. Unfortunately, RAMA commonly hears from workers that no safety or protection equipment is given to them to complete their duties which often entail spraying a variety of pesticides, another factor that would adversely affect their health and capacity to withstand hot, smoky working conditions.
What’s more, the City of Kelowna’s recently released Agricultural Plan fails to include any plans or policies addressing any of the above issues that farm workers face. Overlooking farmworkers in future community planning is not only an oversight–indeed, the plan notes how “enhancing the quality of life for farmworkers” was identified as a priority in stakeholder consultations, but failed to put this into action–it also sends a clear message that the challenges and issues that farm workers face are not considered a concern to our community.
RAMA members are outraged that migrant workers are consistently portrayed in an unfavourable light in our local media, despite reports of the terrible working and living conditions they endure. They are again and again painted as dangerous, subhuman, and lacking in some way in comparison to Canadian citizens. At the same time, local governments disregard these issues and further exclude migrant farm workers from our community by ignoring all the above-mentioned issues.
We want to remind our communities and governments that migrant farm workers, while living and working here in Canada, are entitled to the same rights and protections as every other Canadian resident, and that they are here because they are absolutely integral to keeping the local agricultural industry thriving. Migrant farm workers should be treated with the same respect and dignity as other community members.
If you enjoy Okanagan fruit, wine, and other locally produced food products, you have migrant farm workers to thank for getting those products onto your plates and into your glasses.
RAMA is a migrant justice collective that advocates for Latin American and Caribbean migrant farm workers in the unceded Syilx territories of the Okanagan Valley. We work to build radically inclusive and more socially just communities by engaging in political advocacy, accompaniment, direct support work, public awareness campaigns, and the documentation of workers’ conditions and experiences. We are a volunteer-run, not-for-profit group.