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Migrant workers facing obstacles as Canada’s new COVID-19 travel rules roll out


By Cloe Logan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

NATIONAL OBSERVER

From their homes in far-flung locations like Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, migrant workers are telling Dennis Juarez how new travel restrictions are making it hard for them to get to Canada.

Juarez, who manages Mosaic’s migrant workers program in B.C., says foreign workers are getting little information about a recent policy change requiring any international traveller to have documentation of a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours prior to boarding a flight. And those who do figure out the new rules must pay out of pocket for the test and all other related expenses.

Juarez has heard from workers abroad about the barriers they’ve faced trying to comply. COVID-19 tests can cost up to $350 in a place like Mexico, where many of Canada’s migrant workers are from.

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“I’ve been talking to my friends, I’m from Honduras, who say the test costs around $200. For someone from Guatemala or Mexico, that’s a lot of money,” said Juarez. “That’s money that they could use to pay for food and a lot of other things for their family.”

The more than 9,000 temporary foreign workers in the province are essential to the function of the agriculture industry — almost 6,000 plant crops and do other farm work, usually for minimum wage. Without them, many farmers would have trouble producing sizable crops.

Juarez says although he thinks the new rule may be effective in reducing COVID-19 transmission overall, more needs to be done to help migrant workers access and pay for tests.

“It could be either covered by the employer, or even the Ministry of Health, or a combination of different governments,” he said. “Even from the government of Canada, there could be a subsidy.”

Anelyse Weiler, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Victoria as well as a contributor to Justice for Migrant Workers and the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, expressed similar concerns.

“It’s a significant burden for workers who are in isolated rural areas in their countries of origin,” she said. “And the requirements, broadly speaking, are a significant burden for workers and have limited usefulness in preventing many of the outbreaks that we’ve seen this past season.”

Weiler says outbreaks won’t be prevented by pre-boarding tests. Rather, Weiler says the government should be investing in on-farm housing for workers — which would actually prevent COVID-19 from spreading on farms in B.C. and the rest of Canada.

“What we know from medical experts is that outbreaks that occurred among migrant farmworkers this past season were largely due to viral transmission within Canada. Workers were contracting the virus within Canada,” she said. “And workers also faced overcrowded housing, often workplaces that didn’t allow for them to feasibly distance.”

Weiler agrees with Juarez — the government could make exceptions or provide monetary help to cover test costs.

However, the office of federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough confirmed that migrant workers would be subject to the same rules as any other traveller.

“This means that, unless they are exempted, they will be required to meet the new requirement regarding testing. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Canada has made significant investments and taken important action to increase protections for temporary foreign workers, prevent the spread of the virus, and address outbreaks on farms when they do occur,” said the office.

“We will continue to work with workers, employers, partner countries and stakeholders to ensure the program’s success alongside this new requirement.”

For now, Juarez will continue to be in contact with workers, who will keep trying to get the tests, so they can work. However, he doesn’t expect the problem to fix itself.

“They have been saying that the hospitals don’t have the capacity (to test) people who actually need it, meaning people who have symptoms,” he said.

“These workers, who probably don’t have COVID, their home countries might not see it as an emergency. Even here, at the beginning, they were saying only health-care workers would be able to get tested … so that will delay the workers coming to Canada.”