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Expanded bike program helps migrant workers enjoy their time off

The program has provided more than 50 migrant workers with bikes and bike repairs

By Rithika Shenoy , in City , on November 22, 2017

Marv Clark hovers over the bike he is fixing and expertly turns the wheel.

Once it is rebuilt, the bike will be given to a temporary migrant worker in the Fraser Valley through a program called Bici Libre.

Clark is the eldest of a small team of Bici Libre volunteers who donate their time to fix and refurbish bikes for migrant farmworkers, many of whom come from Mexico and Guatemala and live on the farms where they work.

The program, started in 2015 by Lauren Warbeck, has provided more than 50 migrant workers with bikes and bike repairs so that they can get out to shop and enjoy themselves when they’re not working.

“We’d go every second weekend through the summer and we would put on a bike clinic,” said Clark, who loves tinkering with bicycles.

Now the program has expanded to Vancouver’s temporary foreign workers employed at the city’s only race track.

Bici Libre volunteers hope the program will continue to expand.

“I believe they will be exploring the possibility of doing that in future years,” said Aida Mas, a former program co-ordinator.

The birth of Bici Libre

Bici Libre founder Warbeck became interested in migration issues while pursing her master’s degree in geography at the University of B.C. During that time, she visited Arizona where she learned about undocumented people dying as they tried to cross the Sonoran Desert.

When she returned to Vancouver a migrant justice worker in B.C. told her about the problems faced by temporary foreign workers here and Bici Libre was born. “He told me the one thing these workers could use, is access to bikes and bike mechanics,” she said.

UBC’s Bike Kitchen is stocked with bikes that have been fixed and refurbished for migrant workers

Warbeck, who is also a bike mechanic, started the program with a $100 grant from UBC’s non-profit AMS Bike Co-op’s cycling initiative. That was all it took to get the program going.

“Our volunteers were on board immediately,” she said.

One of their first volunteers was Clark. “Marv had spent some time in Chile and was familiar with Latin American economic issues,” said  Warbeck. “He single-handedly built about 20 bikes for the program in the first year.”

Meaningful changes for greater impact

To connect with the farmworkers, the migrant-worker bike project initially teamed up with Umbrella Multicultural Health Co-operative, which conducts mobile health clinics for migrant agricultural workers in the Fraser Valley.

“They invited us to set up a mechanic’s tent beside their mobile health clinics,” Warbeck said. “Knowing they had a history of working with the vulnerable community, we took their leadership very seriously and did exactly what they asked us to do.”

Warbeck said they soon learned these workers had good mechanical skills but no access to the bike parts or tools to fix their bikes. So, the program expanded to provide tools and instructions to the workers so they could fix their own bikes when they were back on the farm.

The key transition happened in the second year when the program moved to the farms where the migrants work,  said Mas. This was done in collaboration with Sanctuary Health.

“By going directly to the farms, we could see who needed a bike and what kind of services were already available to them,” she said.

Increased funding methods help the program grow

The program now relies on funding from a UBC student fee, wage subsidies, T-shirt sales, and donations. For the past two years, the Bike Co-op also organized a fundraising auction.

Pedalling Art is Vancouver’s only bicycle-themed auction. Bike-related art pieces like paintings, jewellery and coat racks are sold. Artists get 50 per cent of the sale price, and the rest goes to fund the program.

“Last year we raised about $500 for the Bici Libre program,” Nestler said. She isn’t sure how much the auction netted this year, but is sure they have surpassed last year’s figures.

Bici Libre volunteers like Clark flock to UBC’s Bike Kitchen every Wednesday to refurbish and fix old bikes. Although the volunteers are unlikely to meet the farmworkers more than once, they gain satisfaction from knowing they’ve helped migrants enjoy their time in Canada.

This Bici Libre bike is fixed and ready to ride

Before this program began, “if they had a day off, there was no way for them to go to town and buy something,” said Clark. Now, on Sundays, the temporary foreign workers often cycle to a lake near Abbotsford for a picnic. This is a way, he said, to help them escape work.