British Columbia

B.C. farmers adjust to new government rules for temporary foreign workers

The province is confident that farms, and work camps, can mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Farmers say food security is not at risk, but some individual farms will struggle

Temporary foreign workers coming to the province to harvest produce must now self-isolate for 14 days before starting on the job. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture has released protocols for farmers who employ temporary foreign workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

These rules come more than a week after 14 migrant workers tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak that was announced at a farm in West Kelowna in the province's Okanagan region.

All employers must now ensure that temporary foreign workers self-isolate for 14 days before they begin work. Workers who exhibit common cold or flu symptoms at any point must self-isolate for 10 days.

Reg Ens, executive director of the B.C. Agricultural Council, says his industry is quickly adapting to the new rules.

"Farmers are changing the way they schedule crews, where people are doing work, how they work together, increasing cleaning," he says.

"Like everyone in B.C. we're concerned with how the pandemic is going to unfold. Our farm families live in these communities, so it's a concern."

The B.C. Fruit Growers' Association relies on about 4,500 temporary foreign workers to help pick crops every year. (Glen Lucas)

Just like everyone else, workers will have to adhere to the two-metre physical distancing requirement, but barriers can be used where that's not possible, such as on a packing line.

David Mutz, spokesperson for Berry Haven Farm in Abbotsford, said he is happy to see the new requirements, but he's bracing for an atypical year.

"It's going to be a decrease in efficiency for us, definitely," said Mutz Wednesday on The Early Edition.

Mutz is expecting that because of the new rules, he won't be able to hire as many people as usual at his Fraser Valley farm.

"Some of our temporary foreign workers have been coming for up to 15 years, so they're like family," he says.

David Mutz, with Berry Haven Farm in Abbotsford, says some temporary foreign workers have been coming to the farm for 15 years and are like family. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Transportation, accommodation changes

On larger farms, or in situations where workers are housed off-site, there are new restrictions for vehicles. 

Truck cabs are limited to a single driver, and cars with a back seat are limited to a driver and a single passenger in most cases.

Accommodations on farms will have to meet some criteria as well.

Beds must stay at least two-metres apart, and temporary barriers or curtains are recommended to prevent the spread of droplets when people sleep.

"It's pretty tough to have two metres on the bunk bed," says Mutz, adding he is still hoping for clarification from the ministry.

Under the new rules, each employee will also use their own set of dishes and utensils.

Ens says some businesses are struggling. Fewer people are buying flowers right now, and spring is a usually a big season for sales. But overall food security is not yet a concern.

"Canada is known for a safe, sound food system. As a consumer, I'm not worried at all," he says.

With files from The Early Edition, On The Island and Daybreak North