After toiling in the fields to secure Canada’s food-supply chain amid a pandemic, migrant farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago have found themselves stuck in this country due to travel restrictions imposed by their homeland.
The workers — estimated to be in the hundreds — are not used to a Canadian December, and their employers’ bunk houses are not necessarily winterized to keep them warm.
Already struggling, many have also been denied Canadian employment insurance benefits because their work permits are tied to specific farm operators, meaning they are not available to work for other employers — a criteria upon which Employment and Social Development Canada insists.
Seasonal workers come to work in Canada yearly on a closed-work permit that restricts them to working for one employer. Like Canadian workers, they pay the EI premiums through paycheque deductions. However, they cannot access the benefits of EI during the off-season because they must return home and are outside of Canada. EI is a temporary income support meant for those actively looking for jobs in this country, and these workers are not authorized to work for others.
“We don’t have winter clothes or boots. It’s chilly in the house. There’s wind coming through the doors and windows,” said one worker, who asked the Star to withhold his name for fear of reprisals or of not getting recalled back for work in the future.
The 36-year-old father of two ended his job at a southwestern Ontario apple farm a month ago and is now staying at his boss’s farmhouse with a handful of countrymen caught in the same situation.
“We need money to take home and it costs so much to stay in Canada. The harvest is over and there are no jobs,” said the man, who has been coming to work in Canada for five years.
“They need to get us home or give us back the EI that we have paid into.”
Under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, workers’ work permits are all expiring on Dec. 15, meaning they must leave or otherwise lose the status that lets them be in Canada legally. They could potentially be barred from future entry to Canada, ending their ability to return for work in the coming season.
According to several EI rejection letters viewed by the Star, Employment and Social Development Canada told the workers they were ineligible for EI benefits because they were not considered “ready and available for work.”
A few workers, who got their EI applications approved at the discretion of sympathetic officials, have been told the benefits will end on Dec. 15 when their permits expire.
Advocates have been collecting winter clothes and food for the estimated 400 or more workers in Ontario and Alberta, hunkered down in isolation in their local communities due to the pandemic. Employers are letting the workers stay in their farmhouses. While some are charging rents, others only ask workers to pay for utilities and transportation to town for necessities.
On Monday, advocates sent a letter to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, demanding they reverse decisions denying EI benefits to affected migrant farm workers.
“To me, these are Canadian workers. They pay their taxes and they pay into our EI system. Because of COVID-19, they are stuck here. This is a crying shame,” says Toronto-based human rights worker Consuelo Rubio, who is part of the advocacy collective Justicia for Migrant Workers that is assisting the workers.
“We are talking about several hundreds of workers here. It won’t break the bank.”
Rubio said the Trinidadian workers have been advised by Canadian government officials to pay $150 to extend their work permits to remain here legally.
However, Rubio said an extension of the work permit won’t help address the barriers they face in accessing EI, because the permit will still restrict them to working for the farm owner who brought them here.
University of Windsor law professor Vasanthi Venkatesh said the workers’ predicament highlights a long-standing issue faced by seasonal agricultural migrant workers, who return yearly to work in Canada for as many as eight months but can’t access EI benefits.
“They keep saying if you don’t have a valid (open) work permit, you can’t work elsewhere and we are not giving you EI,” she said. “This is a situation that the workers have no control over.”
Trinidad and Tobago has closed its border to all international flights since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, but migrant workers were allowed to leave the country and many arrived in Canada after June at Ottawa’s request to help secure food supplies.
The Trinidadian consulate general in Toronto has recently issued an “urgent notice” to employers of affected workers urging them to help renew their work permits so they could maintain their status in the country.
“The ongoing pandemic and border restrictions currently in place in Trinidad and Tobago has impacted on the timely repatriation of farm workers,” said the two-page letter. “All workers who in this time of uncertainty are undoubtedly anxious for positive news regarding their position in Canada at this time.”
Trinidadian officials in Canada did not respond to the Star’s repeated requests for comments.
Alexander Cohen, press secretary of Immigration Minister Mendicino, said officials are working closely with other federal agencies and diplomats from Trinidad and Tobago to ensure the stranded workers have access to housing and income support programs that they are entitled to until their return home can be arranged.
“We are currently finalizing plans to address the workers’ immigration status and allow them to continue to work, and be covered by health care and other services. We want to assure them that they will not be left without status in Canada,” Cohen told the Star.
One worker, who has worked at an Ontario tobacco farm for several years, said he has had no income since the harvest season was over in mid-October. The 26-year-old, who asked not to be identified, said he felt betrayed by both the Trinidadian and Canadian officials.
“They made all these promises when they wanted us to travel and work. Now, our job is done and we are stranded, no one cares about us,” said the worker, who now stays at a bunk house with six other Trinidadians. None of them knows how to extend a work permit.
“We are angry and frustrated. All my savings are gone and I’m gaining nothing after spending a (work) season here,” he said. “The workers from Jamaica, Mexico and St. Kitts have all left. All we want is to return home and spend our Christmas with our family.”
Chris Ramsaroop, a spokesperson for Justicia for Migrant Workers, said seasonal migrant farm workers pay an estimated $21.5 million annually in EI premiums and it’s a travesty how they are treated in their time of need.
“The people who grow our fruits and vegetables, the people who put food on our tables, should not face perpetual impoverishment,” he said. “We cannot simply ignore their calls for justice.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung
Source : Toronto Star