Pandemic Borders

Will Canada give its foreign essential workers their rights?

Canada has the opportunity to live up to its values of human rights, dignity, fairness, and justice. Will it take it?

Usha George
27 October 2020
Healthcare workers at a COVID-19 testing center in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 24 Septembre 2020
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Picture by Liang Sen/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved
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With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures 

There are two categories of workers in Canada who, through the bureaucratic disentitlement of the immigration processing system are defined as temporary and non-status/undocumented. Yet, the work they do is neither temporary nor superfluous.

COVID-19 has rendered the world immobile and has unexpectedly put a dent in Canada’s ambitious immigration plans to admit 1,053,000 permanent residents over three years (2020-2022).

An IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) release in May 2020 reported a 26% decline in the number of permanent residents admitted to Canada in February and March of 2020. Admissions in the economic class – those moving to Canada under the skilled worker category – declined by 29%, and admissions in the family class – those joining family members already in Canada – declined by 16%.

To ensure that Canada’s immigration numbers remain on track, the country should consider two categories of people already living and working in Canada: Temporary Foreign Workers and non-status/undocumented Workers.

In 2017, there were approximately 550,000 Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada. About 60% of them work in primary agriculture, food production, and fish processing. Generally described as ‘low-skilled,’ these individuals have become ‘essential workers’ during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic also highlighted their plight in terms of a general lack of protection from dangerous work environments. In most cases, these workers experience precarious employment circumstances with low pay and highly compromised housing and health facilities. Three migrant farmworkers in Ontario have died of COVID-19, and many have tested positive.

In principle, Temporary Foreign Workers have the same rights as Canadian workers. In practice however, many experience limited access to workplace rights and protections, healthcare, or income support available to other workers. Migrant workers pay income tax and contribute to the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance; however, they cannot benefit from these contributions due to their temporary status in Canada.

While the workers themselves are designated as ‘temporary,’ the work they perform is not temporary at all. Employers are always in need of workers in agriculture and food production, transportation and infrastructure, health, and social care.

Generally described as ‘low-skilled,’ these individuals have become ‘essential workers’ during this COVID-19 pandemic

Non-status/undocumented workers include workers who have legally entered the country but overstayed their permitted visa period as well as those who have illegally entered the country, sometimes having been smuggled across the border. In addition, when those on temporary work permits change employers without official approval it contributes to becoming non-status/undocumented because they are engaging in work outside the terms of their work permit. It is estimated that there may be up to half a million non-status/undocumented workers in Canada. The majority of them live in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver.

Non-status/undocumented individuals work in the construction, hospitality, and manufacturing industries, or as domestic workers (e.g. housekeepers, cooks, cleaners, caregivers). Legally prevented from obtaining a work permit or social insurance number (SIN), they work in the underground economy for low wages and under poor and unsafe work conditions, making them extremely vulnerable to dismissal, abuse, and exploitation by their employers.

With no access to workers’ compensation or publicly funded healthcare, many non-status individuals who experience serious workplace injuries compromise their health and safety. They are also required to pay emergency fees at hospitals. What is worse is that non-status/undocumented workers pay provincial sales tax and property tax, and may contribute to insurance funds, health, union dues, and pension plans if using someone else’s SIN, but can never access such services themselves.

A humane solution

What if the government considered granting permanent status to these two categories of essential workers to address the current immigration shortfall?

For example, a modified version of the assessment system for Federal Skilled Trades Class (FSTC), formerly known as the Federal Skilled Trades Program, would enable qualified non-status/undocumented workers in the critical sectors to apply for permanent status in Canada.

The eligibility criteria for the FSTC are required language levels, at least two years of full-time work experience or accumulated part-time experience, demonstrated skills and experience covering the essential work of the occupation, and an existing offer of employment from a Canadian employer, or possession of a skilled trade certificate from Canada. Those without an offer of arranged employment should have the prescribed amount of settlement funds: a single applicant should have $12,960, with each additional family member adding $3,492 to the required amount, up to $34,299 for a family of seven.

The non-status/undocumented workers in specialized trades certainly meet all the eligibility criteria. These workers are already employed in Canada and are adapted to Canadian life. They have the social capital to find employment that is best suited to their skills.

Ironically, COVID-19 has offered Canada the opportunity to live up to its values of human rights, dignity, fairness, and justice, and this is one way that the government could do so.

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