Advocates say migrant farmworkers lack access to vaccines — and that hints at a larger problem

Connecting with Alberta’s migrant workforce is challenging — there’s no public access to data around which of the province’s farms employ these workers and many workers fear speaking out lest they be replaced.

So for Vanesa Ortiz, secretary of the Association of Mexicans in Calgary, meeting these workers involved starting from scratch.

“We had to travel to small towns in Alberta, and just basically stay in parking lots for hours and hours waiting for them to do their groceries and connect with them that way,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz learned these workers, who often live in congregate living situations, often lack access to essential services — a struggle exacerbated by the pandemic.

In her conversations, Ortiz said many expressed they didn’t even know vaccines were available.

“You know, the way the mainstream public will learn about vaccination rollout is by listening to the radio or watching TV or social media with Canadian sources,” she said.

“But what happens when you don’t speak the language, when you are in a very isolated community and when the person who is responsible for your wellbeing, which is your employer, is not communicating that information to you?”

Making vaccines more accessible

With those concerns in mind, the Association of Mexicans in Calgary sent a letter to the provincial government on May 3, requesting that:

  • Accessible transportation be made available to vaccination sites.
  • Farmworkers be prioritized in the vaccination rollout.
  • Information about the vaccination rollout be disseminated in the language of these workers.

A spokesperson for the Alberta government said the province was working to make vaccines more accessible, potentially involving pop-up clinics or other activities to reduce barriers.

“We’ve translated vaccine education materials into 13 languages and are working with diverse sectors such as industry, municipalities, and community-based organizations,” Brendan Procé said in an email.

But advocates said vaccines are just one piece of the puzzle — and the struggles are emblematic of a larger societal issue.

Seeking change for workers

Last month, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced a new immigration pathway intended to allow up to essential workers and international graduates in Canada to convert their temporary status to permanent status.

That program was criticized by the Migrant Rights Network, who said it would only benefit a small group and would disclude a large number of workers.

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and member of the Migrant Rights Network, has been calling on the federal government to immediately provide permanent resident status to all migrant and undocumented people in Canada.

“We have a choice right now. One in 23 people in the country are migrant or undocumented. As a result, they’re kicked out of public services or can’t access the rights that they do have,” Hussan said.

“Whereas the primary issue is this — we cannot have public health if one in 23 people are excluded. We can’t have labour laws if one in 23 people don’t have access to basic labour rights.”

Speaking in April at a virtual news conference, Mendicino said Ottawa’s new pathway to permanent status was about more than “a new piece of paper.” 

“We’re creating a pathway for newcomers that will strengthen their job security, expand their career horizons, and encourage them to put down deeper roots in our communities where they are giving back,” he said.

WATCH | Migrant workers need universal access to health-care, migrants rights activist says:

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says that if migrant workers can’t access vaccines, they can’t access health-care generally. 0:44

Snapshot of the lives of workers

Hussan said the challenges felt by racialized working-class people during the pandemic represents just a snapshot of the lives of these workers.

Certain messaging — for example, “visit your local Shopper’s Drug Mart to get vaccinated” — doesn’t connect to these workers, Hussan said.

“I’m sorry, but that actually excludes everyone without a phone line, everyone who doesn’t speak the language, anyone who doesn’t live close to a pharmacy,” he said.

“So it’s the entire vaccine system, as part of the broader society we live in, which consistently and unconditionally excludes the same people that it calls essential.

“We hear that migrants are essential, we hear that low wage workers are essential, we hear, it’s the grocery store worker, the cleaner, the construction worker, the health-care worker — but why are they being excluded from essential rights and protections?”

In the end, the issue isn’t about prioritizing vaccines for migrant farmworkers, Hussan said, but something on a societal level.

“If they can’t get vaccines, they can’t get any health-care. That’s the point,” he said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada began accepting applications for three separate streams under its new immigration pathway on May 6. The streams will remain open until Nov. 5, or until they reach their limit.

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