Migrant farmworkers left out of Alberta's vaccination rollout, says activist group

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Farmworkers at work in a field. Image credit: Faith Unlimited/Flickr

Vanesa Ortiz, her husband, and her 13-year-old daughter have been working as a family on behalf of Alberta's Mexican migrant agricultural workers since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Ortiz, her family and the organization they represent -- the Association of Mexicans in Calgary (AMexCal) -- started out as an anti-racism organization for the Latino community in Alberta. When COVID-19 hit the province, they directed all of their energies to supporting migrant farmworkers.

"The agricultural workforce in Alberta is migrant farm workers and it's completely invisible," Ortiz said in an interview.

A Mexican immigrant herself, Ortiz has built her connections with migrant agricultural workers and some of the farmers who employ them from the ground up.

"There has really not been advocacy in many years [specifically] around migrant farmworkers," she said.

Ortiz, her family, and AMexCal have been organizing in coordination with Migrante Alberta, who have long advocated for temporary foreign workers, undocumented workers and caregivers. They have also been mentored by the Ontario-based advocacy organization Justicia for Migrant Workers.

Ortiz said she's driven all over Alberta building relationships with workers, laughing at how quickly she has become an expert in navigating even the smallest of communities.

Throughout the pandemic, she has been delivering supplies such as hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, toilet paper, and masks, as well as food to workers who are often restricted from leaving the farms -- even to grocery shop -- due to the pandemic.

Sometimes, when the employer of migrant farmworkers does not allow her to make deliveries or enter the farm, she drops supplies off by the side of the road after dark, where workers will collect them.

Ortiz said the migrant worker population is lower than previous years, likely because fewer workers are coming to Canada due to pandemic fears. Last year, after two migrant farmworkers died in Essex County, Ontario, from COVID-19, Mexico stopped sending temporary foreign workers to Canada, limiting the workforce here.

However, living conditions are still crowded, Ortiz said, with three or four workers often living in one shared bedroom.

Now, she says, the most pressing matter for migrant agricultural workers in the province is getting vaccinated.

On May 3, Ortiz and Luis Vazquez -- president of AMexCal -- sent a letter to Premier Jason Kenney, Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro, and several other provincial and federal ministers responsible for labour, immigration, agriculture and food.

The letter laid out the situation for the province's migrant agricultural workers, describing the essential jobs they undertake to sustain communities' food chains, despite being excluded from provincial services and labour protections.

Because of the congregate work and living conditions, Ortiz says migrant agricultural workers must be prioritized in Alberta's vaccine rollout.

Not only that, but this population of vulnerable workers requires support in acquiring their vaccines, in the form of vaccination information in their own languages, and physical access to vaccination clinics.

Ortiz notes this could take the form of providing transportation to and from vaccine clinics for workers living in remote communities. She also suggests that vaccine clinics be brought to the workers so that entire farms can be offered vaccines at once. But, she points out, the process must be non-coercive.

A spokesperson from Alberta Health Services said in an emailed statement that "anyone in Alberta, including a migrant farm worker, who is 12 or older can get the vaccine…Work is underway to increase outreach to marginalized or vulnerable groups across the province."

The spokesperson also said if an individual does not have identification with their age on it, they can book a vaccination appointment by calling Alberta Health Services at 811. He did not answer questions about the issue of a lack of transportation that migrant farmworkers face.

The letter from AMexCal also featured quotes from migrant workers themselves, though their names were changed to protect their privacy.

The quotes from workers described fears that they will be required to have been vaccinated in order to return to their home countries when the season ends. They also expressed a fear of taking COVID-19 home with them to their families.

"If we get sick, operations at the farm might stop. We want to work but we also want to be protected from COVID and go back with health to our families," a worker named as Luis G. said.

Canada relies heavily on the temporary foreign worker program for its food production. In all of Canada, temporary foreign workers make up 20 per cent of total employment in the agriculture sector. In 2018 in Alberta, there were 1,900 migrant farmworkers employed on farms, or roughly six per cent of the total workforce.

Ortiz said the issues facing migrant agricultural workers in Alberta get little attention when compared to workers in Ontario or British Columbia. She also said the agricultural sector has a firm grip on public opinion in the province, and criticism of farmers is not readily accepted.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020-2021. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image credit: Faith Unlimited/Flickr

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