From disposable to indispensable: providing foreign migrant workers with a pathway to permanent residency
The COVID-19 pandemic reveals how foreign migrant workers contribute to Canada’s economy and society by doing the jobs that too few Canadians want. Their work ensures that our food industry thrives, that young, elderly, and at-risk Canadians receive proper care, and that families have much-needed support.
The pandemic also enhances the vulnerability of these vital workers. The cramped and often filthy living quarters of field workers, the limited access to benefits, workplace abuses, and the dangers posed by COVID-19 are only a few examples.
Recently, in an effort to safeguard everyone’s health and safety, Portugal took the unprecedented step of granting migrants, including migrant workers, resident status during the pandemic, and providing full access to health care and social services.
Canada must do the same. In fact, Canada could go one step further and grant all overseas workers permanent resident status.
There was a time when this is what Canada did. Up until the 1960s, workers from abroad who filled labour shortages were granted permanent residency upon arrival. Their services were needed, and they were regarded as valued workers and future citizens.
But in 1973, the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) replaced permanent residency and while the need for migrant workers never abated, their working and living environments suddenly became precarious.
Under the TFWP, most workers are tied to one employer. While the recently introduced Open Work Permit for Workers at Risk provides workers with the opportunity to leave abusive situations, the onus is on the workers to provide proof of abuse. Because there is no guarantee the permit will be granted and fearing deportation and the loss of the vital income that sustains their families, many workers remain silent and as a result workplace abuses and injuries are seldom reported.
Opportunities to apply for permanent residency range from difficult to impossible depending on the occupation. For example, under the new Caregiver Pilot Program, prospective caregivers can apply but only after a gruelling and expensive process, while agriculture workers and meat processors cannot, despite working for years and sometimes decades in Canada. Until recently, no workers could bring their families with them, a cruel separation that has finally and mercifully ended for caregivers, but not others.
For almost 50 years, human beings whose work is indispensable have been treated as disposable.
The federal government recently addressed some of the problems exacerbated during the pandemic. It lowered eligibility requirements to access EI benefits and introduced new criteria for farmers to help safeguard worker safety, such as providing proper housing and accommodation in compliance with public health needs for physical distancing and sanitization.
While this response is encouraging, much more needs to be done. The new support package covers temporary foreign workers who have lost their job due to COVID-19 lay offs, or who have had to stop working because of illness, but workers face barriers in accessing the benefits because information about support is not available in their language or requires a computer and internet, which many don’t have.
Also, the package does not support workers who lost their status because they fell through bureaucratic cracks. The federal support package also does not guarantee compliance of public health directives on farms, in meat processing facilities, and at other workplaces.
Compromised individuals risk spreading COVID-19. The Canadian government need only look to Portugal for an efficient and speedy solution to safeguarding the safety and security of these critical workers and all Canadians: grant them residency status. They have already been thoroughly vetted prior to coming to Canada.
Moving forward, give all migrant foreign workers access to permanent residency upon arrival as part of building a fair and inclusive country. In 2019, the federal government took steps in this direction by strengthening the caregivers’ pathway to permanent residency conditional to having completed two years of work in Canada. It must extend this program to workers in all sectors.
COVID-19 has shined a light on the precarious employment of many essential workers, including those from overseas. Granting residency to migrant workers will demonstrate genuine appreciation for the services they provide, creating a pathway to citizenship and eliminating the systemic barriers embedded in temporary foreign worker programs.
Now is the time for change.
Take Action! Please write to your Member of Parliament and urge the government to give all migrants in Canada immediate residence status with a pathway to permanent residency. More details.
Written by Connie Sorio, Migrant Justice Program Coordinator, KAIROS. Originally published in the Hill Times on May 11, 2020.