Invaluable foreign migrant workers need status

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Permanent residency would mean: full benefits; the freedom to leave abusive employers without fear of deportation and lost income; and a gateway to citizenship.

Foreign migrant workers are integral to Canada’s economic and social fabric. This became obvious when the pandemic threatened both Canadian food security and the lives of migrant workers, who put themselves on the line to help safeguard Canadians who are at a high risk of dying from COVID-19.

The vulnerability of workers was also laid bare when cramped working and living conditions exposed thousands of them to the virus, and Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program failed to guarantee them access to health care and other benefits.

At the start of the pandemic, several federal departments and provincial ministries scrambled to respond with short-term solutions that did little to protect workers or contain COVID’s spread.

Finally, in April 2021, the federal government opened permanent residency applications to 50,000 workers in health care and other essential sectors. Permanent residency would mean: full benefits; the freedom to leave abusive employers without fear of deportation and lost income; and a gateway to citizenship.

“Your status may be temporary, but your contributions are lasting — and we want you to stay,” said Marco Mendicino, minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

While the workers’ contributions are indeed lasting, this opportunity to apply for permanent residency is not. Applications end Nov. 5, and are limited to people with valid work permits, leaving in limbo thousands of undocumented workers who left abusive employers or were laid off due to the pandemic.

Indeed, 45 per cent of migrant workers believe they’re not eligible for the federal program, according to a limited online survey by Migrant Rights Network.

Those without status should concern us all. Many are too afraid to seek even voluntary health care, fearing deportation and thereby putting themselves and everyone at risk.

Workers who are eligible to apply to the federal program are expected to find the time and money to study, pay for, and pass the required language test, all while gathering needed documentation in a short timeframe. This presents an unsurmountable challenge for those working long hours every day for minimum wages.

While extending the application deadline will alleviate pressure on those eligible to apply, removing it altogether would empower workers who have long played a critical role in: supporting Canada’s standard of living; building vibrant communities; and filling labour-market shortages, something that civil-society organizations, including KAIROS Canada, have long urged.

The federal government is to be commended for its efforts to improve working and living standards for these workers. Its 2021 budget includes $54.9 million over three years to increase inspections of employers, and to ensure that temporary foreign workers have appropriate working conditions and wages.

The government also committed $49.5 million over three years to support community-based organizations in the delivery of programs and services for migrant workers through the new Migrant Worker Support Program. In our experience, federal funding of a community-coordinated approach and strategy has led to very positive outcomes and meaningful partnerships. We encourage all levels of government to improve efficiencies and service delivery by streamlining collaboration and coherence between government departments. Such action should close the many gaps and loopholes in initiatives designed to support temporary foreign workers.

Yet, other federal support, such as improvements to service delivery of open work permits, should be replaced by what’s referred to as a regularization program, which grants permanent residency to all workers, including those who are undocumented. It’s imperative that Canada re-introduce this program, which it has successfully administered in the past, and retire its problematic temporary-migrant-worker programs.

If Canada truly wants migrant workers to stay, it will return to permanent residency as the strategy to meet immigration and labour-market demands, and will continue to emphasize the improvement of workplace conditions.

It’s high time Canada truly valued these invaluable workers.

Connie Sorio is the Migrant Justice Program Coordinator at KAIROS. This article was originally published in iPolitics on June 8, 2021.

Filed in: Migrant Justice


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