Construction worker Cesar Paredes, whose wife is due with their first child on May 29, was told by his foreman last Friday that there’s no job for him and 10 other crew members as construction work slowed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike his Canadian colleagues, the undocumented worker from Mexico is not eligible for employment insurance or any provincial or financial aid for those who have lost their jobs due to the crisis.
Paredes’ only social safety net is his physical labour — and some savings, which he says have been depleted after he paid thousands of dollars to an immigration consultant for a promised work permit that was never delivered.
“Half of the guys on our crew are like me, from Latin America, with no status in Canada. We have looked for other jobs, but there are no jobs out there,” said the 31-year-old Toronto man, who worked as an engineer in the oil and gas industry before coming here in 2018 as a tourist.
“I have $300 left. We have no money for rent. I don’t know how long the money will last. At least my Canadian colleagues can still keep afloat. I have nothing but an unknown future.
Over the last two weeks, Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre has been fielding calls from people with precarious immigration status, who have been let go from their jobs and are in need of food and shelter.
“I had three calls today alone from people who had no food in their fridge and were facing eviction from their apartment next month,” said Francisco Rico-Martinez, the centre’s co-director.
“Migrant workers, non-status people, international students and temporary residents are the most vulnerable because there’s a lack of language and understanding of the system, and they have no idea of what resources are out there for them, if any.”
His group is one of more than three dozen community organizations in Ontario that are urging all levels of governments to extend their COVID-19 income support and essential services to all residents, regardless of immigration status.
Since March 16, more than a million Canadians have applied for employment insurance as the pandemic ravages Canada’s economy.
The federal government has rolled out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, among other measures, to provide $2,000 a month for up to four months for workers who lose income as a result of the pandemic.
However, the government assistance is designed for Canadian citizens and permanent residents, and won’t be available to most of those in the country with temporary status, said Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto.
“Ninety per cent of these people work in restaurants, factories and nail salons. They are paid cash under the table. Their employers don’t file their income taxes,” said Go, whose office has fielded a couple dozen COVID-19 aid-related inquiries a day the past week.
“It’s not like they would have access to EI and other benefits before the pandemic, but if they were let go, they could find another job. But now there are no jobs to be had. The crisis has simply exposed the pre-existing gaps in our social safety net.”
Caline Gusmao, an international student enrolled in Seneca College, said her partner worked in a bar to support the two of them, but was let go by her boss on March 15.
With all their previous savings going toward tuition — $14,000 a year — for her two-year social service worker program, they were already living paycheque to paycheque before the pandemic.
“We don’t have any family and friends here. We have no benefits. If we don’t work, we have no income. All migrants are in the same boat,” said the Brazilian, 27, who came to Canada in January 2019 and is set to graduate in June.
“We have no one to turn to. My partner is delivering food through UberEats now, but everything is closing. The money is just enough for us to get food. We don’t know how we are going to pay our rent,” which comes to $1,800 a month.
But trying to secure food and shelter is not all Gusmao is worried about. With no end in sight to the pandemic and growing fear of a looming recession, she doubts she’ll be able to land a job in her field upon her graduation. A job is necessary if she and her partner have any hope of acquiring permanent residence in Canada.
“If the pandemic doesn’t end soon, we don’t know what to do,” said Gusmao, who has a law degree from Brazil. “We all come here with a dream. I want to fulfil my dream. I need the work experience to have a chance for permanent residence.”