Farmers and fruit pickers are urging the B.C. government to move quickly on opening sanctioned campgrounds for domestic farm workers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Ministry of Agriculture is in consultation with municipalities across the South Okanagan to establish six designated sites, but no decisions have been made as harvest gets underway.
“We’ve got a lot of NIMBYism, you know, not wanting to set up a concentrated spot in any given region,” Ministry of Agriculture official Mark Raymond told Summerland council on Monday.
Up to 2,000 domestic migrant workers travel to the region from other areas in Canada every summer to pick fruit, providing essential services to the agricultural industry.
But just one quarter of domestic workers reside on the farms where they are employed.
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The majority of domestic agricultural workers set up camp on unserviced Crown land, raising concerns of a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
“It was really looking more to try and coordinate that rogue camping and trying to make sure that there’s supports in the communities to try and reduce any health impacts that might result from that unmanaged camping,” Raymond said.
Some farmers, like Harman Bahniwal, Krazy Cherry Fruit Co., are taking it upon themselves to quarantine arriving domestic workers and setting up serviced campgrounds, but farmers are not required to provide accommodations for Canadian workers — as they are for foreign workers.
“More support, more funding would be great because it is an expense — we take it upon ourselves — and the crop was a light crop in general,” Bahniwal said. “And then with the rain it’s splitting, so farmers aren’t having fun this year.”
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Meganne Trudeau, who is spending her fourth summer picking fruit, says some farms do not provide basic living needs for domestic workers.
“Right now I think I am in a good camp, but my first year there were no showers, no kitchen, nothing, just put your tent there and that’s it. No water or anything,” she said.
The BC Cherry Association welcomes the government-sanctioned campgrounds, but said farmers need more funding to accommodate domestic workers on-site.
President Sukhpaul Bal says the industry association is also advocating for the province to set aside hotel rooms for domestic workers to self-isolate if they get sick, similar to foreign workers.
“If it is the farmer’s responsibility to quarantine that worker on site,” he said. “That is added stress and an area that farmers are not an expert in.”
B.C. Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham was not available to speak with Global News on Wednesday, but said in a written statement that the province will continue to work with local stakeholders to support worker health and safety.
“Which we hope will lead to permanent improvements for seasons to come, along with labour stability and growth for B.C.’s farms, economy and food security.”
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