Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers

Migrant advocates call on feds to expand EI, CPP to foreign workers

Migrant worker advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for the federal government to create a new mechanism for foreign workers to access critical benefits like employment insurance (EI).

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, told the House human resources committee on Monday that the government must find a way to ensure that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) can access the benefits they’re already paying into, such as the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) and EI  benefits.

READ MORE: Feds provide $50 million to help temporary foreign workers self-isolate

“What [TFWs] want is access to those benefits when they need them, whether or not they get sick and or there is a shortage of jobs, including if they have to return to their country,” she told MPs as part of their study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant workers and those living in Canada with precarious immigration status.

The meeting comes just days after a third Mexican migrant worker died from COVID-19 in Ontario.

Despite paying into EI programs, migrant farm workers have never been eligible for full EI benefits because they are seasonal. However, they did access to EI’s special parental, maternal and compassionate benefits up until December 2012 when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government eliminated the benefit.

In April, the government announced that employers must pay TFWs during their 14-day self isolation period, and pledged $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker for eligible employers. As well, the feds  committed to providing these workers with access to EI benefits and other income supports if they become ill, laid-off, or have to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Syed Hussan, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said many migrant workers were forced to risk their lives and come to Canada or be without income, as CERB and EI were not available to these workers, even though many work and pay taxes in Canada year after year. The result, he said, has been the death of three migrant workers so far, including Mexican migrant worker Juan López Chaparro who died from COVID-19 in Norfolk County in Southern Ontario on Saturday.

His death was preceded by the passing of Mexican farm worker Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, in May. He was the first migrant worker to die from COVID-19. A week later, 24-year-old Rogelio Muñoz Santos also died after contracting the virus. Both migrant workers were employed on farms in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex County.

Hussan said the three men are just one example of the “series of injustices” occurring across Canada as migrants in the country don’t have access to CERB, healthcare, or jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At his daily press briefing Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said anyone who works in Canada must be able to do so in a safe environment, saying that has not been the case for many migrant workers. He said the workers are an important part of Canada’s food supply chain, and that their protection must be guaranteed.

READ MORE: StatsCan report on rising numbers of TFWs in AG sector suggests labour shortage, experts say

“I think it’s obvious that we need to do a better job of ensuring that rules are followed for temporary foreign workers in Canada,” he said.

Hussan said increased inspections of conditions on farms will not solve the problem, saying that farmers are following the laws, but workers are still being given inadequate housing, and face reprisal and not being brought back the next year if they complain. As well, he noted that some farmers are not providing enough food for workers during their 14 day self-isolation period, while workers can’t gain access to groceries in their own,

Hussan said the solution is to create a single-tier immigration system which offers full immigrations status for everyone who comes to Canada.

“We need a single-step solution,” he said.

This would solve the “technical issues” of programs like CPP being deposited into Canadian bank account, and therefore not being accessible to migrant workers in Mexico, as well as issues like workers not having access to healthcare.

Douglas said her sense that migrant workers don’t mind paying taxes but want access to the benefits when they need it, such as if they’re sick or if there’s a shortage of jobs. But, she agreed with Hussan that workers coming to Canada should be given the option, noting that some workers want to stay, while others want to return to their home country.

Douglas also said the federal government could pull from existing undocumented citizens, migrant workers, refugees claimants, international students to help meet immigration targets already set for 2020 and 2021, noting that they will likely not be met because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: Migrant workers pause applies to just handful of Ontario farms, industry says

A recent report from Statistics Canada found there were 550,000 temporary workers (temporary residents who received a T4 slip during the year) in Canada in 2017, accounting for 15.5 per cent of employees in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting fields. The report also said foreign workers made up 41.6 per cent of agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent of agricultural workers in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia in 2017.

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