COVID-19

Erika Zavala and Jesús Molina say they were fired by Bylands for violating farm policies against having visitors. Right, a copy of the letter explaining their dismissal.

Two temporary foreign farm workers were fired from Bylands Nurseries and promptly sent back to Mexico for receiving a delivery of food and clothing.

Amy Cohen told The Okanagan Weekend that Erika Zavala, 35, and Jesus Molina, 36, had their contracts terminated for violating Bylands policy – specifically for having visitors.

Cohen, with Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), visited Zavala to drop off supplies because workers are barred from leaving the premises.

“She didn’t have enough work clothing, and because of the restrictions on going into the community, she wasn’t able to access that on her own,” said Cohen, who’s known Zavala since 2013.

That visit in late June cost Zavala and Molina their jobs.

“They were really upset and felt that the restrictions were discriminatory because all of Bylands’ Canadian workers can come and go as they please, and the temporary foreign workers are under these kinds of restrictions and surveillance.”

Cohen said workers rely on the contracts to financially help their families.

“We tried to intervene with the consulate. We tried to intervene with a legal advocate,” she said.

But it was too late. It took less than a week after Cohen’s visit for the workers to be terminated and put on a plane home.

Cohen said restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 have exacerbated already negative working conditions for foreign workers on Okanagan farms.

“These workers are being restricted in a way that’s different from the way that the rest of us are being restricted,” she said. “These people should be under no stricter rules than the rest of us once they’ve done their 14-day quarantine.”

Zavala and Molina had both been in Canada since early 2020, before any health restrictions. They, along with other workers who have already spent two weeks in isolation, are still being restricted in their movements, but Canadian workers are not.

“I think there is a real problem with making the employers gatekeepers for workers to the community,” she said.

Employers are in a position of conflict of interest. Workers won’t disclose health conditions that require medications for fear of being fired, she said.

Cohen said RAMA has been helping them access goods that they otherwise couldn’t. Female workers, for example, don’t feel comfortable asking their employer to bring them feminine hygiene products. One person asked for a pregnancy test, which she knew would likely impact her employment.

“Even with groceries, we are finding that workers are having trouble getting things that are familiar items to them, that are culturally appropriate. A worker at Bylands complained of getting vegetables and fruit that are rotten from the store,” said Cohen.

Even in normal years, workers only have access to the community once every one or two weeks, she said.

“Those kinds of difficulties accessing the community have always existed. They are just exacerbated this year,” she said. “The monitoring of employees’ movements by their employers is even more intense than it’s ever been. Even in their time off, they don’t feel free.”

She said there exists a power imbalance between employer and worker that COVID-19 restrictions have deepened.

There are other farms in the region that are also isolating people this way, she said.

“The workers, now that they have heard that several people were sent home, are especially terrified to violate those farm policies even though they know that they are probably illegal and they are certainly really unjust,” said Cohen.

Zavala and Molina’s case was highlighted in a recent a story in The Guardian about foreign temporary workers receiving unfair treatment in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged as much.

“It’s obvious that we need to do a better job of ensuring that the rules are followed for our temporary foreign workers in Canada,” he said last month, after three foreign workers died from COVID-19 at an Ontario farm.

Cohen said the government has a responsibility to declare that the kinds of restrictions imposed on foreign Okanagan farm workers are a misinterpretation of health orders – and are illegal.

She said she would also like to see a policy allowing unannounced proactive inspections of housing and workplaces, in which workers have access to the inspector without the employer present.

Finally, she said if a temporary farm worker is fired, he or she should have the right to appeal.

Bylands could not be reached for comment.