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'We feel forgotten': 150 migrant workers reeling after B.C. flood evacuations

While some migrant workers remain on the job, hundreds more across B.C. are in a state of limbo after they were evacuated from farms devastated by floodwaters. Some say it's time to re-write their contracts to protect workers from climate change.
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, on Nov. 16, 2021.

Hundreds of migrant workers across B.C. are in a state of limbo after they were evacuated from farms devastated by floodwaters. 

In one Chilliwack shelter, roughly 150 temporary foreign workers — from countries like Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico — immediately had their only source of income cut off when the waters rose.

“What are we supposed to do in these emergencies?” said Saul Gonzalez, a worker from Toluca, Mexico, who has spent 22 seasons in Canada harvesting crops like strawberries and cucumbers.

“We’re with our friends. But we feel forgotten by the government.” 

For Gonzalez, it all began Tuesday when firefighters banged on the door of the flower farm where he works between Abbotsford and Chilliwack. Told to evacuate immediately, his boss lent Gonzalez and two other migrant workers a truck to escape. 

On the way, another migrant worker sent them the address of a Chilliwack shelter, where they’ve been stuck ever since with no money and a staggering level of uncertainty.

“We don’t have any contact with the farms, with the government or the consulate,” he said. 

With many farms still flooded and facing devastating prospects of returning to normal, advocates fear the floods could trigger mass deportation of migrant workers before their contract is up.

“It’s going to be really bad. It’s likely they’ll get sent back because the farms are destroyed,” said Byron Cruz, an organizer with the migrant advocate group Sanctuary Health. 

This is not the first time workers have had their work disrupted due to a climate-induced disaster. After the late-June heat dome, many crops were killed off or damaged, prompting Mexican Consul General Berenice Díaz Ceballos to transfer more workers from one B.C. farm to another than at any time in her five years on the job. 

Cruz worries that trend will only get worse.

“What we experienced this year in British Columbia, it’s going to be our experience from now on,” he said. “It’s not about heat waves only, it’s not about smoke only; it’s, in general, we have to be prepared all year round. This is going to be happening all the time.”

Still in an emergency, Cruz and representatives from other relief organizations are now trying to figure out where the workers can go next. On Thursday, the Migrant Rights Network put out a call for help, calling on people to donate to a campaign looking to hand out $100 pre-paid cards to the evacuated farmworkers.

Long-term, both Cruz and the Migrant Rights Network say employer-specific work permits throw up barriers to access employment insurance during disasters. 

“In these emergency situations, they need another option,” said Cruz.

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth told Glacier Media that the government is aware of the situation in Chilliwack.

“If they were evacuated to Chilliwack, they will be receiving emergency services such as meals and shelter," he said.

At roughly 6,500 farmworkers per year, more registered foreign workers come from Mexico than any other country.

Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Lana Popham said she has received reports that all of those Mexican workers have been accounted for.

“They were moved quite briskly,” she said. “One of the challenges is that there are a handful of folks that had to move without their passports.”

Popham added her ministry is working with the federal government and consulates to make sure each worker retrieves or is issued travel documents. 

“If there is a growing concern, we would be informed immediately.”

When asked how the government is protecting migrant workers from the effects of climate change over the long term, Popham said there is a legal requirement to pay workers under their contracts. 

But according to the Mexican consul general, how that contract will be honoured in a state of emergency sparked by flooding is not clear.  

Díaz Ceballos said the outdated document — which was written at the federal level — needs to be updated to confront the realities of a world where global pandemics and climate change threaten the workers that help feed millions of Canadians.

“It’s not clear the contracts will be honoured in a flood situation,” said Díaz Ceballos. 

To complicate matters, under a parallel migrant worker program, thousands more workers come to the province with little knowledge and oversight from consulates. That makes improving long-standing concerns, such as poor housing, especially challenging.

Díaz Ceballos said she is set to speak to Popham in the coming days and within a week, Canadian and Mexican officials are scheduled to discuss the status of the countries' migrant worker agreements more broadly.

“We are in favour of reviewing the whole program,” said the consul general. “What will happen with the workers when you face any natural disaster or man-made disaster?”

Back in Chilliwack, Gonzalez is still waiting for answers. Back home, he said his family is worried for his safety and what will happen next. 

“I’m sad. It’s cold,” he told Glacier Media from outside the shelter. “It’s the fear, the doubt we have is if we’re going to stay or have to go back.”