Two Mexican temporary foreign workers claim they were fired from a West Kelowna nursery for hosting two guests at their employer-provided housing — a policy they say was unjustly imposed solely on migrant workers.
Jesús Molina, 35, and Erika Zavala, 36, came to work in B.C. through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, intending to send money back to their family and six children in the Mexican state of Baja California.
The two arrived in Canada in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit its peak and several regulations were placed on foreign workers entering the country. They each worked separately at different farms in the province before transferring together to West Kelowna’s Bylands Nurseries in late May — a few weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak at the farm was declared over by health officials.
However, their time in the Okanagan was shorter than they thought.
Despite anticipating a full summer’s worth of work, Zavala and Molina were fired and expatriated just over a month after moving to West Kelowna. The termination came after they invited two representatives from Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) – a migrant workers’ rights group – to their residence at the farm, breaching Bylands’ policies.
Upon their arrival at Bylands, the two claim they were allowed one day to settle in and buy food at a local grocery store before they began work. After their return, they said their manager told them told they could not leave the farm again nor could they have any visitors, despite the two having been in the country for several months and having never been exposed to the virus. These restrictions weren’t in place for the Canadian workers at the farm, they said.
“[The manager] said that we were not allowed to go out to the store because he was afraid that Canadians would beat us or say awful things towards us because there was an outbreak at the Bylands farm,” Zavala told the West K News in Spanish.
In late March, Bylands Nurseries had the nation’s first outbreak of COVID-19 among migrant workers.
Twenty-three workers tested positive for the virus and Interior Health ordered 75 workers who were exposed to the virus — 63 migrant and 12 local — to self-isolate.
“During that time, and since then, we have followed the most current guidelines from the provincial Public Health Order (PHO) for Agriculture, and we have established policies for guest workers relating to their accommodation and work practices to protect from further transmission,” said Bylands’ owner Mike Byland in a written statement to the News.
With its new protocols in place, Bylands again began employing new foreign workers in mid-May. The plan, Byland said, was developed with the Mexican Consulate – including accommodation plans that prioritized health and safety. The farm communicated the policies to all new workers and asked them to acknowledge them as part of their orientation, Byland said.
|Community volunteers organizing food distribution for Bylands Nurseries on April 2, 2020, days after the outbreak was announced. (Contributed)|
‘We were told there would be no problem’
As the weeks went on, Zavala found herself running low on work clothes.
The couple invited two local workers from Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) over to their employer-provided housing. They brought Zavala clothes as well as Mexican food and snacks that weren’t being provided by Bylands. They claim they cleared the visit with their supervisor.
However, just days later, the couple was called into their boss’ office. Another worker on the farm had taken a photo of the couple with the RAMA workers and sent it to the manager.
They received a dismissal letter, telling them they had broken the rules and were being sent back to Mexico.
“I tried my best to explain the situation in Mexico, that there was no work and that we had six kids to care for but it did not seem to faze him,” Zavala said.
Byland confirmed the two workers were fired but said this incident was not the first breach of farm rules by Molina and Zavala.
“On a number of occasions, these two individuals did not adhere to the policies and guidelines that were established by Bylands Nurseries based on the PHO. Bylands Nurseries discontinued these individuals’ employment following multiple instances where they did not adhere to workplace policies, which are in place to ensure the health and safety of our team and community.”
Not only from the Okanagan
According to Amy Cohen, one of the RAMA workers who attended Molina and Zavala’s residence, Bylands’ firing of the two workers and what was essentially a lockdown of all foreign workers on the farm constitute human rights violations — not uncommon among similar operations in B.C. and across the country.
“We’ve heard — not only from workers in the Okanagan but from across the country — that this year [foreign workers] are having to agree to similar policies, despite the fact they’ve completed their two weeks of quarantine,” Cohen said.
“What we need now more than ever is for those workers to be able to access protections and rights that they’re legally entitled to. These restrictions farmers are imposing upon workers are making that really difficult for them.”
While limitations that apply to foreign workers, but not local ones, is nothing new in the seasonal agricultural world, policies have become much more strict amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen said.
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