City needs to help ensure foreign workers properly treated: councillor

Coun. Ross Siemens says city should do what it can to ensure buildings housing workers are in good conditions.

Coun. Ross Siemens

Coun. Ross Siemens

The city needs to do what it can to ensure those who bring temporary foreign workers to Abbotsford are providing adequate housing, Coun. Ross Siemens said Monday as council allowed a farm to continue housing its workers in a renovated machine shed.

And an advocate for such farmworkers says the federal government also has to take a look at its rules allowing workers to be housed on-site.

Council unanimously approved the continued use of the 3,847-sq.ft. building, which includes 16 bedrooms, a mudroom, and a large kitchen.

It had exceeded a previous limit on the size of such structures. And while there was no indication of housing problems at the berry and crop farm – which employs and houses 28 temporary workers through the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program – Siemens told council he has heard of cases where temporary workers were mistreated.

The federal government oversees the program and is responsible for annual inspections of such buildings, but Siemens said the city should do what it can to ensure accommodations are maintained and used properly.

“We’ve heard of instances in the past where there has been substandard treatment of these people because they are not residents,” Siemens told The News.

He said the housing of farmworkers is one of the things being looked at by staff as they conduct their AgRefresh review of the city’s thousands of acres of agricultural land. While the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over the program and the rules that govern those employed under the program, it can enforce bylaws that regulate structure.

A 2012 report by the Parliamentary Budgetary Officer suggested foreign workers didn’t comprise an abnormally large part of the Abbotsford workforce – at just 0.5 per cent. But Claudia Stoehr, a legal advocate with Abbotsford Community Services, said the number has grown considerably in recent years and that she hears weekly from temporary farmworkers in the Fraser Valley those who feel they have been mistreated.

While many employers treat their temporary workers well, others do not, Stoehr said. And housing is a common problem, particularly for those living at the farm where they are working.

“It’s not a home,” she said. “Sometimes it’s in a garage; sometimes it’s 20 workers in a house.”

She said there are occasions where accommodations don’t have facilities for cleaning clothes, or where kitchen facilities are inadequate for large numbers of workers.

In other cases, conflicts arise that have nothing to do with a seasonal employees’ work, but are rather linked to the fact they are living in close proximity to their boss.

“It’s not all the farms, but on some of the farms, it’s really, really bad,” she said.

Stoehr said she has spoken to workers who weren’t permitted to leave the farm unescorted.

“You live like a prison.”

She said federal rules should be expanded to provide more living space for workers, and mandate they not be housed on-site