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Visions Journal

Home Away from Home

How MOSAIC and its partner organizations support migrant workers in BC

Dennis Juarez

Reprinted from the "Rural, Remote and Northern Communities" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 16 (1), pp. 30-32, 35

Stock photo

Migrant workers are considered essential workers in British Columbia by Emergency Management BC. In 2018, migrant workers held 54,734 jobs on 3,846 farms across the country. There were temporary foreign workers from almost 100 countries working in agriculture in Canada. Nearly 90% of these temporary foreign workers came from just three countries: Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica.1

Some migrant workers have been coming to Canada for more than 20 years, for eight months of the year. Others have a one- or two-year contract with their employer. Many individuals work in rural and remote areas, with limited access to transportation and resources. During their stay, they are unable to see their family and friends in their home countries. They are often preoccupied with the safety of their loved ones and the need to send some or all the income they earn in Canada to their home countries. Migrant workers in some industries, like construction and hospitality, are often able to bring their families with them to Canada. But these individuals then encounter other challenges, such as finding adequate housing, enrolling their children in school and finding employment for their spouse.

All of this causes stress among migrant workers. Many find themselves dealing with anxiety, depression, a sense of isolation, substance use issues and suicidal thoughts.

MOSAIC’s support for migrant workers in rural areas

MOSAIC, with its Community Capacity Building Project (funded by the Government of Canada’s Migrant Worker Support Network), has collaborated with 23 agencies across BC to provide social services support to migrant workers. We provide education about migrants’ rights and accessible services and resources, help improve migrants’ work experiences in Canada and act as a trusted advocate in issues and allegations of abuse or wrongdoing. We also support employers, helping to improve their understanding of program requirements. We serve other support organizations as well, better equipping them to meet the needs of migrant workers and employers in their communities.

One of the key access points for the project is MOSAIC’s Migrant Workers Hub in Surrey, which provides services and support to clients in person, by telephone and online. Many migrant workers find it difficult to share their experiences or ask for help, particularly to resolve issues with employers, because they fear there will be negative repercussions. The Hub provides a safe space for workers to share their stories and offers a hands-on approach to resolving workers’ issues and concerns. Workers are supported on a one-on-one basis: an individual’s needs are assessed, and appropriate resources and referrals are provided. Often, workers with mental health challenges are referred to group or private counselling sessions.

In some cases, however, cultural biases and stigma can affect how our clients receive our suggestions. For example, many workers in the Latin community refuse to attend counselling because of the cultural perceptions of mental health care. Some Latin Americans believe that expressing the need for counselling is a sign of weakness, poor self-esteem and a lack of confidence. The prospect of reaching out for mental health support makes them question their manhood and raises fears that others may view them as ill or “crazy.”

To help us better tailor our resources to serve migrant-worker populations in rural BC, MOSAIC reached out to our collaborators in the Okanagan—the Dignidad Migrante Society, Kamloops Immigrant Service and Kelowna Community Resources—for their insight into how we can best support migrant workers in rural areas.2

Mental health and substance use challenges for migrant workers

Living and working in a foreign cultural environment can be difficult, taking a toll on an individual’s mental well-being. For migrant workers in BC, cultural difference is one of the key challenges.

Consider the cultural role of alcohol, for example. Drinking is part of Latin American culture and is often not seen as a problem in Latin American communities. But while an individual’s alcohol consumption may not be viewed as a problem in their home community, it may be interpreted as a problem in cultures that view drinking differently. In Canada, this cultural bias helps target migrant workers as “alcoholic.” The fact that some migrant workers don’t drink alcohol compounds the discomfort that many migrant workers feel when they are all painted with the same brush.  

The bias against drinking alcohol is not the only challenge that migrant workers face. As Natalia of Dignidad Migrante Society points out, “Migrant agricultural workers face a number of challenges in maintaining their mental health. Many feel invisible to their Canadian neighbours; some are even made to feel unwelcome. Migrant workers experience stress associated with long working hours, crowded living conditions and lack of privacy. They must also deal with the pain of lengthy separation from their families: their desire to give their children a better life means that they often do not get to watch them grow up.”3

Liza, from Kamloops Immigrant Services, says, “Migrant agricultural workers face mental health and substance use challenges such as culture shock, isolation from their new community of work and family and friends back home, [and] feelings of not belonging due to cultural and language differences. Many opt to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.”4

In the experience of Javier from Kelowna Community Resources, most migrant-worker clients in the Okanagan area say that they are “under stress” and “need someone to talk to.” While he has not encountered instances where clients have used drugs, he notes that some workers will socialize at the pub when stressed about work and family.5

The challenges that migrant workers face are compounded by the fact that migrant workers’ medical insurance does not cover mental health care. Few mental health resources are free, yet many individuals cannot afford to pay the fees associated with them. And there are few Spanish-language supports.

Addressing challenges with creative solutions

The Dignidad Migrante Society has been building community among migrant workers through celebration and interactive learning and games: “One of Dignidad’s core values is celebration,” Natalia points out. “We recognize that joyfulness, laughter and affection are tools of resistance and resilience.”3

Two staff members of the Kamloops Immigrant Services “make regular visits to the communities in the Thompson-Nicola region to meet with community service providers, farm owners and migrant workers. We find that in-person visits are a more effective way in rural communities,” notes Liza. “People like to put a face to the name, and we have very friendly faces!” During outreach worksite visits, says Liza, “We also take the opportunity to introduce ourselves and our services to increase the level of awareness about what KIS [Kamloops Immigrant Services] offers within the region and gain word-of-mouth exposure. When members of the communities know who we are and what we do, it is easier for them to refer a migrant worker in need of help.”4

Kelowna Community Resources has created a WhatsApp group that has grown by word of mouth to include over 150 migrant workers. Group members share information and resources and stay connected with each other online. Javier also provided the names of various agencies in the Kelowna region that are able to offer additional mental health support: the BC Crisis Line, the Boys & Girls Club, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Counselling BC and the Elizabeth Fry Society.5

Many agencies host events on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the various Independence Days of migrant workers’ home countries. The agencies provide food for the gatherings and music. Other collaborating agencies offer cooking classes and English classes. These events and celebrations are intended to bring joy into workers’ lives and encourage personal interaction that might provide opportunities to share experiences and address problematic issues. To this end, MOSAIC also offers educational workshops about labour rights, workplace culture and taxes and organizes open discussions with government officials.

Providing support to migrant workers in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected how MOSAIC and collaborating organizations offer support to migrant workers—and the type of support that migrant workers need. Through my outreach work in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, I have learned that workers have felt more isolated during the pandemic; as a measure to help prevent outbreaks, some have been instructed to not leave their house or farm. In addition, employers saw a shortage of migrant workers just prior to high season. Employers, the Government of Canada and various consulates discussed how they could bring migrant workers to BC. Now, the provincial government and Vancouver Coastal Health are supporting the workers by putting them up in hotels while they complete their 14-day isolation period after they arrive in Canada.

It is not easy to be laid off when you’re far from home, especially if you are a migrant worker whose network is limited to your Latin American contacts. Although the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is available to migrant workers, some workers are afraid to apply because they fear it might affect their immigration status. MOSAIC has been helping to provide more information about how the CERB supports migrant workers. When many workers in the Lower Mainland were recently laid off by a cannabis farm, our collaborating agencies provided food, transportation, emotional support, guidance in filling out work permit and CERB applications and help finding alternative employment.

The pandemic has also limited socializing opportunities. Pubs and other social environments are not options. Opportunities to build community are also limited. Most of our collaborating agencies have closed their offices to the public. Natalia points out that migrant workers “are increasingly anxious about their own and their families’ health.”3 Liza says that clients of Kamloops Immigrant Services are more concerned about “understanding and applying for federal and provincial benefits and supplements.”4

As a group, MOSAIC and our collaborating agencies have started offering services through online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, text and Zoom. MOSAIC’s Migrant Workers Program is now offering online education sessions, and we share information through WhatsApp and Facebook, which enables us to distribute information about migrant workers’ rights, COVID-19 guidelines and precautions and information about personal protective equipment and food handling and care during the pandemic. Kamloops Immigrant Services now provides one-on-one client sessions and follow-ups in various languages by phone, e-mail and web conferencing. Its Conversation Circle program takes place through Zoom; its Food Safe training is now online.

In many ways, providing support during the COVID-19 pandemic is more complex. But it has also forced us to find alternative ways to support migrant workers. We have had to rethink how we provide support and we have developed tools to provide that support more flexibly.

About the author

Dennis is the manager of MOSAIC’s Migrant Workers Program and has experience working with refugees, refugee claimants and migrant workers. Previously, Dennis worked at Options as the refugee claimants specialist and employment specialist. Dennis has a Career Development Practice Certificate from Douglas College. For more information on MOSAIC’s programs, visit www.mosaicbc.org/mwp

Footnotes:
  1. Statistics Canada. (2020). Temporary foreign workers in the agricultural sector, 2016 to 2018 (April 20). www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2020030-eng.htm.

  2. The content in the following sections has been summarized from email communications, Zoom meetings and phone calls between the author and organization representatives. More detailed source information has been provided for words attributed to specific individuals.

  3. Personal email communication with the author, May 8, 2020.

  4. Personal email communication with the author, May 6, 2020.

  5. Zoom conference with the author, May 7, 2020.

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