Lower Mainland organization donates bicycles to lone migrant workers
VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Vancouver nonprofits and a group of UBC students are working together to provide self-reliance and accessible transportation to migrant farm workers by giving them bikes.
Advocates say migrant workers often have no transportation and have to make do with whatever their employers provide, making it much more difficult to shop for groceries, explore the area and get to appointments you needed.
With the help of Vancouver-based organizations like Watari and Bici Libre, workers can access bikes for free, while learning how to repair and maintain them.
Ingrid Mendez, director of the Watari Counseling and Support Services Society, says – in addition to the fact that bicycles are convenient, they give workers more freedom.
“It’s a very good tool for them too, if they work on a larger farm, their home is sometimes a little further away from their place of work. So, this bike will help them get to their real workplace on time, in a much better and faster way. And that will give them the opportunity to sleep a few more minutes, ”she explains.
Mendez, alongside his partner Byron Cruz, is at the heart of Watari’s cycling initiative. They are in the field to deliver the bikes, contact workers and provide other support.
However, the bike initiative was first started by a group of UBC students.
Lauren Warbeck was inspired to take action when she heard about the transportation challenges workers face as part of her masters research. Using her skills as a bicycle mechanic, she started Bici Libre in 2015 with Marv Clark, who continues to volunteer and lead the program.
Bici Libre works by repairing old, abandoned and donated bikes and donating them to community organizations like Watari, who then distribute them to communities in need.
Rachel Brydolf-Horwigb, is coordinator at Bici Libre. She says the founders of the organization stepped up when they identified a need.
“They saw this opportunity to provide some meaningful form of help to a lot of these workers, many of whom live where they work, they don’t have a lot of mobility options. Any form of autonomy is really important, ”she explains.
In addition to Bici Libre bicycles, Watari also receives donations from the Latin American community in the Lower Mainland.
Enrique Vertti owns bikes and blades, and has donated many bikes over the years to the cause.
“Myself, from the bicycle industry, I know how important bicycles are. You don’t have to pay for gasoline, you don’t have to pay for insurance, [the workers] can just use it as a means of transportation, which is really important, ”he says.
Despite the difficulties he has faced with his own business, Vertti continues to donate because he knows how vital support is for these workers.
The Cycling Initiative also runs workshops that help people learn how to repair, maintain and even build their own bikes.
“Basically it’s about giving them tools and skills that they can use longer term in their lives,” says Cruz.
“It is also this idea of creating this solidarity between them. Once one learns how to fix a bike, they can teach others and fix bikes for each other. So that’s another way to strengthen these networks on farms as well.
Given the restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Watari and Bici Libre have had to adjust the way they provide support.
“Often times, we will visit workers during the summer on farms or at events and repair bikes on site, although COVID-19 has ended such activities in order to protect workers from the virus and reprisals from their employers, ”says Brydolf-Horwigb.
Deliveries to farms in the interior have been postponed due to provincial travel restrictions, but with the restrictions lifted, the project is slowly reopening to reach as many workers as possible.
But for Mendez, Cruz and Brydolf-Horwigb, it’s not just about bikes. It is about supporting people who are doing difficult work, often at a high personal cost and under very difficult conditions.
“When we go to the farms after the bikes have been delivered, we see workers coming back with their groceries. They have all of their purchases on the back of the rack, and you know, with those big smiles on their faces, they finally have this tool. It’s really powerful for them, but also for us, ”says Mendez.
Canada’s agricultural industry has the highest job vacancy rate on the farm and hires approximately 60,000 temporary migrant workers per year to alleviate labor shortages.