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B.C. extends COVID-19 hotel quarantine program for temporary foreign workers

The program, which started last year, will fund hotel, food costs, laundry, and other supports. So far, the province has spent $17 million on almost 5,000 workers.
Temporary foreign workers will have their isolation costs covered by the province for the next season. Photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia.

With safe housing one of main concerns for temporary foreign workers coming to British Columbia, the provincial government’s extension of its COVID-19 quarantine program is a step in the right direction, says the Mexican Consulate.

The 2021 growing season is starting and Berenice Diaz Ceballos, Mexico’s consul general in Vancouver, says it’s important that workers have a safe place to isolate once coming to Canada. Many of B.C.’s temporary foreign workers are from Mexico, as well as Honduras and Guatemala. 

The program, which started last year, will fund hotel, food costs, laundry, and other supports. So far, the province has spent $17 million on almost 5,000 workers who arrived in the province between April 13 and Dec. 31, 2020. Sixty-four cases of COVID-19 were detected among those workers, all of whom recovered during the mandatory quarantine.

It may sound like a lot of money, says Ceballos, but it’s small relative to the industry they contribute to.

“Obviously, having the workers in hotels is costly ... but if you compare it to agriculture (being) a multimillion-dollar industry, it’s really a very small part of it,” she said.

Temporary foreign workers are required to follow the mandatory 14-day quarantine rules. They’re also have to get a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country, a move that has received criticism from some advocates and workers, who say getting tested on arrival to Canada would make more sense and save workers from potentially having to pay up to $300 for a test.

Part of the picture, says Ceballos, is workers also being vaccinated for COVID-19. It’s her hope a plan will be made soon to include workers in the province’s vaccine rollout. 

Employment and Social Development Canada press secretary Marielle Hossack said it has been recommended that temporary foreign workers be on the list.

“Our government did ask an independent body, the National Advisory Council on Immunization ... to give recommendations on who should be prioritized for the vaccine,” said Hossack.

“Racialized groups and essential workers that have been hit hard by COVID are a group that should be prioritized, according to these experts.”

It’s all part of a larger picture of how the government treats workers, says Ceballos, who has held her position since 2016. She says it’s interesting to think about how the 14-day quarantine program fits into a move towards better housing conditions in general for workers.

In tandem with the quarantine program, the government has started doing inspections of on-farm housing before workers arrive. Ceballos, who has been advocating for that change for the past four years, says it’s a solid move.

The provincial government says it’s expecting 11,000 temporary foreign workers to come to B.C. in 2021, comparable to 2019 and other years. Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Lana Popham says these workers play an indispensable role in B.C.'s food system.

“Extending our quarantine program will provide peace of mind to workers, employers and communities that we are doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

“I know some of these workers leave their homes to come to B.C. year after year, many returning to the same farms where they have developed close relationships, and we are grateful for their help in growing and harvesting food for British Columbians.”

Ceballos and the consulate will continue to be in contact with workers arriving in Canada about their needs. It’s a hope shared by both the workers she has heard from and the consulate that the supports are here to stay.

“I don't know if this program will remain for the next year, the next season or not,” she said.

“But the issue that I have always insisted is that we cannot be taking temporary measures or last-minute measures, this has to be solved from the bottom.”