Bici Libre: Repairing Bikes for Migrant Agricultural Workers

Every year, Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program imports approximately 25,000 workers from the Caribbean and Mexico to work in our fields, orchards and greenhouses for the growing season. We sat down with Bike Kitchen mechanic Lauren to talk about her new project Bici Libre: fixing and donating bikes for seasonal migrant workers in the Lower Mainland.

Kristina: What is Bici Libre?

Lauren: Bici Libre is a pilot project that seeks to facilitate the mobility of seasonal agricultural workers throughout the lower mainland by providing bicycles and tune-ups. The reason we think this is important is because seasonal agricultural workers in the Lower Mainland face a number of barriers, including: limited access to legal recourse  and also in very basic ways such as access to the services they need to survive. So, if a bicycle is going to help someone get to the grocery store, or get to a place to send remittances home, they need to be able to do that, so we seek to provide people with access to autonomous transportation.

Kristina: And you’re doing this alongside the Umbrella Multicultural Health Cooperative; could you describe what they do?

Lauren: Essentially it is a cooperative of different health advocates, social justice workers and health professionals who come together to provide health services to people who are marginalized or have limited access and this is one of their projects. Basically they have these trailers that serve as mobile health and dentistry clinics throughout the Lower Mainland, where doctors volunteer to provide their services to workers in need.

Kristina: So how did you get involved as a bike mechanic?

Lauren: As a graduate student, my research is related to migrant advocacy and migrant justice and so I actually got involved by interviewing a migrant justice advocate in Vancouver who told me about the work that was going on, and then, you know, email this person, email that person, meet this person and that person and suddenly you have a project on the go.

Kristina: Cool! And how long have you been doing it?

Lauren: This is its first year! People have done projects very similar to this throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland in the past. This particular project just started off last month, so we’ve just been once to date, and on that occasion we gave away 4 bikes right off the bat and fixed 10.

Kristina: And where did the bikes come from that you gave away? Were they donated or…

Lauren: Yeah they were donated. So they were basically bikes that had been discarded, abandoned or otherwise donated to The Bike Kitchen and then The Bike Kitchen has given us access some of the less quality bikes that they can’t resell for this project.

Kristina: How did you select who to give the bikes to, or were they given to the farm or…?

Lauren: It’s basically on a first come first serve basis, so we got there, and we set up and people said they needed a bike so they got a bike.

Kristina: Was there any kind of promotion that you guys were going to be there; how did that work?

Lauren: There was probably some subtle coordination through word of mouth but basically we coordinated with the Umbrella Multicultural Health Cooperative and then we just showed up.

Kristina: What are the main challenges you face in this project in terms of language barriers or working with the farms?

Lauren: Well finances are always a barrier in every kind of non-profit project that isn’t an explicit social enterprise which this is not. Just getting the money together to get the components we need; we need brake pads, we need cables, we need [cable] housing, we need used parts, and all that sort of stuff. We need gas to get out there to the communities in the Lower Mainland. Those things are the primary challenges, although we’ve had good luck getting funding so far and I anticipate us continuing to have good luck because I think the work is needed and people can see that.

Language barriers are certainly an issue but not necessarily in the sense that we can’t fix bikes when we can’t speak Spanish. The interesting thing is that the bike tells its own story; if you know how to assess a bicycle then somebody can gesture to something and you can inspect it and figure out what’s wrong. So in many ways the bike is the connecting piece, it’s a bit universal in that sense in that this person can identify that something is wrong with it and they can indicate what it is and then I can pick up on that and assess the bike and repair the problem. However I think it would be great to speak Spanish because it’s a nice way to build a relationship with the people you’re working with. So we do have some volunteers that are Spanish speaking but I am not one of them and certainly not everyone is.

Kristina: What kind of reaction are you receiving from participants getting their bikes fixed or receiving bikes?

Lauren: Positive! People are stoked I think. We’ve only done one, but I think as the word kind-of travels we’ll be able to reach out to more communities. Many farmers will provide bicycles for their workers to use on the farm, since they often need to get from one side of a huge acreage to another, but if their bike isn’t well maintained then they have to walk; so there are lots of those kinds of issues as well. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds over time but generally speaking I’d say people are quite pleased have new brake pads put in or a new cable tube, to be able to use their shifters again or whatever.

Kristina: Is it going to be at a different location every time?

Lauren: It’s going to vary according to where we are invited by the Umbrella Multicultural Health Cooperative. Also some communities have more use for our services than others, since not all communities are accessible by bicycle. So really at this point we’re just learning the landscape of the needs; what communities need what and where our services are most needed and we’re following the Umbrella Multicultural Health Cooperative’s lead on it because they’ve laid the groundwork for this project.

Kristina: I know you’ve only done one so far, but what sort of state have the bikes been in?

Lauren: Lots of just general wear, but the kinds of problems that make a bike really uncomfortable to ride, like a wheel that is horribly out of true is just terrible to ride. Or brake pads being worn, cables being rusted or snapped. We’ve done a lot of cable replacements and brake pad replacements so far, and then just a lot of adjustments, loose hub adjustments and stuff like that; things that come from a lot of use.

Kristina: You’ll soon be collaborating with the AMS Bike Co-op’s new bike building program.

Lauren: Yeah, so this is really exciting. The Bike Co-op had already agreed to give us some funding which was awesome and basically got the program off the ground, since we wouldn’t have been able to afford any supplies without that initial funding. The Programs Manager from the Bike Co-op then approached us to ask if it would be of benefit to do an actual bike-building program. So you know that at the Bike Kitchen we run the Purple and Yellow night where folks come in and fix bikes that belong to the campus bike-share and we’ve had a flood of volunteers recently, so the idea came up to have a second volunteer night. It of course doesn’t make sense to build hundreds of bikes for the campus bike share so Aida [the Programs Manager] came up with the idea of building bikes for various programs.

We’re also in conversation with another community bike shop in town about co-developing programming, but fundamentally what it means is that it’s going to be an opportunity for our volunteers to build a bike from start to finish in a more structured format. So we’ll start with bikes that need to be refurbished, and we’ll work systematically, for example one day all we’ll do is wheels: we’ll just do the bearing systems of wheels and adjustments, and then the next week we’ll do something else.

The idea is that volunteers get a much more structured and meticulous training in bicycle mechanics, so they get to enhance their own skills; especially for the volunteers that benefit from a really structured format, they’re going to get more of a class, entirely for free, and in fact they’ll be paid in pizza! And then out of that program, the bikes that get built will be donated to the Bici Libre program for migrant workers and other programs around town that seek to reduce barriers to full participation in society by providing access to transportation, such as bicycle transportation.

Kristina: So how can people support these programs?

Lauren: The relationships that we’re building in the clinics are protective relationships, and for that reason we cannot have open volunteering at the clinics themselves. That being said certainly volunteering to build bikes is really useful if people are interested and don’t have a means to donate financially. Folks would also be very welcome to make cash donations: we have a jar by the till in the Bike Kitchen.


Check out our Bici Libre page for more information.