If last year was one of extraordinary challenges for Jane Andres, as she tried to welcome farm workers and ease some of the pandemic-related problems they faced, this year will be different again, but hopefully easier.
Knowing what was ahead gave her and the small group of volunteers who help her a chance to be organized and prepared for welcoming offshore workers to town.
With the exception of a few flower growers who have had some farm workers arrive in January, most won’t reach Niagara-on-the-Lake until mid to late February, she says.
Last year, when farm workers were delayed because of federal permit problems due to COVID-19, she already had the welcome kits she has been handing out for the last three years filled, but once they arrived, the problem became how to deliver them to the workers safely, when they were isolating.
Those who are already in town this year needed negative COVID tests before they got on their plane, she says. It worked well for those from Jamaica, but Mexican workers often leave days before their flights, due to the travel distance to the airport, and didn’t know about the tests until they got to Mexico City. They had to travel long distances for the tests, and some didn’t have the money to pay for them, but she believes that to be a problem for those arriving in other areas of Canada. “I don’t believe that’s affecting anyone coming here.”
This year, she can’t work with volunteer teams to fill the bags, so she has arranged for three women to take shifts separately, with the bags and items being stored in a section of her bed and breakfast home that is closed off from the family area.
Although B&Bs were allowed to open this summer, Andres says she didn’t have many guests, so she invited some regular guests from Toronto. “I didn’t charge them,” she says. “I knew they’d be looking for a chance to get away for a few days, maybe from kids or parents they’re living with,” she says.
They also support Niagara farmers by buying local fruit, one of her goals, and many donated to her farm worker programs, including bringing items for the welcome kits.
She has also invited farmers from other areas of the province to stay at her B&B when they come later in the season to pick up workers who have completed their contracts in Niagara, and are ready to move on to other farms further north. It gives her an opportunity to talk about the support for local workers, hoping it will spread to other communities.
Because of storage issues with welcome kits, instead of asking for donated items, she is requesting donations of money through e-transfers to email@example.com, using welcome as the password, or make donations online at workerswelcomeniagara.com. Most of the items are already ordered in bulk, but she could use donations to help pay for them. She is not registered as a not-for profit yet, so she can’t issue tax receipts, but she keeps a scrupulous accounting of how the money is spent.
“We have people in the community who have been helping us source items to find the best possible deal. Penner Lumber has been a great help, advising us when we can order 500 pairs of work gloves on sale,” says Andres.
“This is a community driven, neighbour-to-neighbour project funded by residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s long-term success has inspired communities across Ontario to adopt this practical way to welcome their neighbours that work on the farms, greenhouses and vineyards.”
She began her purchasing for this year’s kits with $1,000 donated by the 2020 Candlelight Stroll. Each costs about $25 to fill, and for the last three years, about 500 were delivered, she says. This year her goal is 550.
As the bags are filled, she is reaching out to farmers to arrange a safe drop-off at their homes before their offshore workers arrive. That way the kits will be in the bunk houses when they arrive, and there will be no contact issues while they’re isolating.
“We hope to deliver the kits directly to the employers of Caribbean workers prior to the arrivals from mid-February and on, or as arranged. Rev. Antonio Illas and the Anglican diocese have a program that reaches out to the Spanish-speaking population. It’s not identical to our welcome kits but we share a lot of resources, ideas and encourage each other in how we can best meet the needs during these challenging times.”
Andres says she doesn’t have all the employers’ contact information, and would appreciate them contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org, to let her know when a delivery would suit them best.
The welcome kits are especially important to the workers this year, who will arrive late at night, straight from the Toronto airport with no stops. They will appreciate the gloves and warm socks waiting for them, toiletries, toilet paper and snacks.
Heavy work socks have been purchased for $2 a pair from Socks for Change, a Niagara charitable organization. Sam Baio, the organizer, also provides, in return, several hundred balaclavas, and neck and ear warmers, Andres says.
Newark Neighbours is usually open at this time of year for workers to pick up warm clothes and household items, such as blenders and microwaves, but is only currently open for locals who need help from the food bank.
In the future, Andres says, she’d really like to see a permanent Virgil location to collect donations for the workers, but closer to where they typically shop in town.
The very positive news, she says, is that she feels change is in the air, not only with discussions about changes to federal regulations, but with what is happening in the community.
“People are becoming engaged, and are thinking about the farmworkers as part of the community. Most of the men are really happy to be here, and happy with where they live. We have some really awesome employers, and a community that wants to help.”
She says as the next generation of farmers takes over, they have a better understanding of their workers. She also enjoys seeing the young people moving to town from the GTA who are accustomed to a diverse community, and love the different cultures they encounter here.
“I see farmers pushing for change, and I’m so encouraged. The younger generation is definitely making an impact. There is more diversity in the community, and more respect for other cultures. Social media is helping us to learn about what’s going on in our community, and people are recognizing the richness and rewards of embracing those relationships.”
More people are also thinking about buying local produce, and that helps the farmers, the workers and the communities, she says.
“It’s a win-win situation.”