Jesus Molina and Erika Zavala on their lunch break at Bylands Nursery. (Contributed)

Migrant workers expatriated after breaching West Kelowna farm’s ‘discriminatory’ policies

Upon their arrival at West Kelowna’s Bylands Nurseries, the workers claim they weren’t allowed to leave

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.

Bylands’ outbreak

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)

READ MORE: Migrant worker advocates blame government, employers for West Kelowna COVID-19 outbreak

READ MORE: ‘Overwhelming, incredible’ support for foreign workers following West Kelowna COVID-19 outbreak

‘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.”

READ MORE: Migrant workers stage multi-city action for full status amid COVID-19 risks

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.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: michael.rodriguez@kelownacapnews.com


@michaelrdrguez
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

CoronavirusMigrant Workers

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sternwheelers once plied Okanagan Lake

Vessels once transported passengers and goods along the Okanagan Valley

Fires ignite on Revelstoke’s Mt. Begbie; Kamloops Fire Centre blazes holding

Crews working throughout region over holiday weekend to contain wildfires

QUIZ: How much do you know about British Columbia?

On this B.C. Day long weekend, put your knowledge of our province to the test

Solco Creek fire east of Okanagan Falls grows to nearly 14 hectares

Both fires were under two hectares in size as of Thursday night, neither threatening structures

VIDEO: Otter pups learn to swim at B.C. wildlife rescue facility

Watch Critter Care’s Nathan Wagstaffe help seven young otters go for their first dip

Police watchdog investigates Kamloops RCMP after stabbing death

The IIO is investigating the police’s lack of success in locating the man charged in stabbing

Forty-three properties near Dry Lake, along Highway 5A, under evacuation alert

Wildfire has been burning out of control north of Princeton for two days

Wildfire near Merritt creates smoke for drivers on Coquihalla

Coldwater River fire was estimated at seven hectares Aug. 3 and classified as out of control

Thompson Okanagan Tourist Association: Who can’t access your business?

TOTA launches video to encourage proprietors to remove barriers

Wildfire burning out of control at Dry Lake near Princeton

Hot, dry conditions affecting containment efforts

Shuswap pet nutritionist, raw diet advocate to be featured in national magazine

Sicamous-based Deanna Larocque building reputation for canine support

BC RCMP notify IIO BC of incident involving police dog in Kelowna

A suspect and a police dog were taken to receive medical treatment after an incident on Aug. 1.

Most Read