From urban farms to rural orchards and countless settings in between, a team of UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College researchers have spent three years and hundreds of hours speaking with migrant workers and their families about the challenges they face.
The project recently received a $147,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation to ensure their work can continue to bear fruit in raising awareness, and bringing positive change for some of B.C.’s most vulnerable workers.
Led by Susana Caxaj, assistant professor in the school of nursing at UBC’s Okanagan campus and Amy Cohen, professor of anthropology based out of Okanagan College’s Vernon campus, the project will use the new funding to delve further into the unique and evolving struggles faced by workers.
“Migrant agricultural workers in B.C. face complex challenges that impact their health and wellbeing. Workers may face precarious legal status, coercive workplace conditions, substandard housing, and health care access barriers. These things all ultimately impact their quality of life,” said Caxaj. “Researchers across the country have documented some of these challenges. Yet we need to spend more time actually developing solutions on-the-ground that can address workers’ vulnerabilities and improve their access to justice.”
Caxaj adds that the grant will allow the team to test a multi-year social support model based on the guidance of migrant agricultural workers. She also expects to be able to coordinate the efforts of community organizations with those of researchers with expertise in healthcare, law, and advocacy.
The project will build on more than three years of research already undertaken.
Caxaj and Cohen – along with a team of research assistants from both institutions – have been working together since 2016. That year, their project, entitled The Public Life of Temporary Migrant Agricultural Workers: The Role of Social Support Systems, Policies and Practices, was sparked by an Insight Development grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
“We set out to better understand and shed light on the challenges faced by workers and by organizations in our communities that are trying to help,” said Cohen. “We also looked at the gaps that exist in the support systems and policies that allow this very far-reaching systemic social justice issue to persist.”
“We’ve taken a participatory action approach, meaning that it was critical to us that all the stakeholders – from the workers as well as the agencies that can support workers – were all involved at every step.”
One of the most positive aspects of the project so far, notes Cohen, is the way in which it has fostered communication among those stakeholders.
Last spring, the research team conducted workshops that saw participation by workers, health authorities, non-profit organizations and a host of agencies like the B.C. Federation of Labour, KCR – Community Resources, Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA), Sanctuary Health, Migrant Workers Centre and immigrant services agencies.
The next phase will help bring even more voices into the conversation, as Caxaj and Cohen continue to reach out to and engage more migrant workers, service providers and support groups.
It is estimated that there are now 70,000 people working under the Temporary Foreign Worker program in B.C., more than 7,570 of those in agricultural occupations labouring under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.
“This research will help build local capacity to support migrant agricultural workers in the Okanagan, and the insights we gain will hopefully guide policy and practice far beyond the region and across the province,” Cohen said.
“These workers play an important role in our economy and we see it as our responsibility to ensure they have equal access to rights and protections. Research like this has the potential to change the lives of people in our communities for the better. We’re grateful to the Vancouver Foundation, and to UBC and the College, and our community partners for supporting that aim.”
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