BALDREY: B.C.'s drastic action on temporary foreign workers saved lives

B.C. has done many things right to avert a crisis in this pandemic, but one of the best moves by the provincial government was its decision, taken back in April, to quarantine arriving temporary foreign workers.

Every week hundreds of these workers (called “TFWs”) arrive at YVR to begin jobs at one of more than 450 B.C. farms that employ them. Upon arrival, they are immediately placed in a 14-day quarantine and are confined to a hotel room near the airport.

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This was not always the case. The decision to forcibly quarantine them in hotels (rather than relying on farms to quarantine workers in congregated quarters) was made only after an outbreak at a West Kelowna nursery saw 20 TFWs there contract the COVID-19 virus.

And thank goodness that decision was taken. So far, 28 TFWs in quarantine have tested positive for the virus. If they had not been quarantined, they would have been free to travel to 28 farms to potentially infect hundreds of other TFWs.

That would have been a nightmarish scenario. It is exactly what has happened in Ontario, which has seen outbreaks of COVID-19 at 17 farm operations. More than 600 migrant farm workers have tested positive for the virus and three of them have died.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told me the outbreak in West Kelowna set off alarm bells and had officials thinking of options never even considered before.

“It seemed like a pretty large idea to think about quarantining them as they came in,” she told me recently. “We didn’t know it would be so dramatic.”

So far, about 3,100 migrant workers were placed in quarantine. As of this column’s writing, almost 600 of them are currently under quarantine (more than 2,500 have left quarantine to go work on farms in the Okanagan, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island).

This policy is not without cost, of course. So far, costs are approaching $10 million and will greatly exceed that figure as thousands more TFWs arrive throughout the summer (most are from Mexico, while a few are from Guatemala and Jamaica).

However, good policies cost money, and Popham says the alternative could have been much more costly.

“We could have had 28 outbreaks around the province with hundreds getting infected,” she said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix noted to me that other provinces are now following B.C.’s lead.

“From a public health perspective it needed to be done,” he said. “B.C.’s approach was a unique one and I think an important one.”

By the end of the growing season, more than 7,000 migrant farm workers will have arrived in B.C. So far, the quarantine policy has been working smoothly.

Popham says it is not without its challenges.

“Things like how can they exercise? Many of them smoke and how can that occur?” she said. “Even things like giving them access to the right kind of food is a challenge.”

Moreover, she points out many of these TFWs have been coming to B.C. for years to find work.

“One fellow has been coming here for eight years. At night, he uses FaceTime to tutor his kids back home in Mexico,” she said. “They all have stories.”

And because of B.C.’s unique and rigorous quarantine rule, they will continue to have jobs at safe job sites.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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