COVID-19 Measures for Migrant Workers in Canada

March 17, 2020

Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Chair
Cabinet Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Open Letter re: COVID-19 Pandemic Measures for Migrant Workers in Canada

Deputy Prime Minister Freeland,

This letter is regarding the treatment of Migrant Workers in Canada, and the need for action to protect their well-being with respect to COVID-19. In only a few short months, the COVID-19 virus has thrown the world into crisis by putting pressures on communities, families, workers, national economies and their health and social security systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Given the severity of the crisis, the government must be prepared to establish clear steps to halt the spread of this disease and address the urgent concerns of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs).

The uncertainty of this virus impacts everyone; however, it disproportionately impacts TFWs, many of whom are in precarious positions and lack access to essential services. All workers must be treated equally and there must be a line of communication directly to these workers on how they can stay safe. Without proper protections in place for Migrant Workers, the Government is directly nurturing the conditions that make the spread of the virus more difficult to stop.

As it stands, the Canadian Workforce is unevenly protected from COVID-19. With glaring gaps in Canada’s Universal Healthcare system, many will experience great difficulties in accessing healthcare. This lack of access for Migrant Workers is a significant barrier. The COVID-19 does not discriminate differently against those who have health cards and those who do not, so the response from the Government must address this. No human life is more valuable than another. TFWs must be offered the essential healthcare access needed to protect their well-being. Health card requirements and waiting period requirements should be waived immediately. It is irresponsible and reckless to withhold any healthcare services from workers at a time like this, and there is no time to delay in delivering.

While initial steps are being taken to improve access to Employment Insurance (EI), there is still no mention of where TFWs will be protected. It was recently announced that the one-week waiting period on accessing EI would be waived for those affected by quarantine. While this is promising, the fact remains that many workers don’t even qualify. These changes do not come close to  addressing the huge gaps in access to EI benefits for the hundreds of  thousands of workers who may need them during the coronavirus outbreak. Health experts and government officials are encouraging people to stay home and self-isolate and people want to make the right choices to keep their communities and families safe, and everyone must have the ability to do this. Specific recommendations for TFWs include:
- The implementation of action teams to assist vulnerable workers in accessing EI including services in their own language
- Removing barriers to access to learning and educational opportunities provided by the EI fund
- Ensuring that all migrants with 900 series SIN numbers have access to both regular and special benefits both here in Canada and their home country.

- For workers who have been employed in Canada but are being denied the ability to return to work, EI funds should be made available to provide income support.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need to improve paid leave for Migrant workers and to make our EI system more responsive and generous for those in precarious work positions. This is particularly apparent considering that Migrant workers are required by law to pay into EI, having this deducted automatically from their paychecks. Therefore, it only makes logical sense that they can access this benefit without difficulty. The time to act is now, and these changes must be made.

At the provincial level the reinstatement of paid sick days is crucial for all workers. Workers must also be provided proper rest periods and breaks and other protections that are enshrined under provincial employment standard provisions. As it stands, a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives,
“COVID-19 and the Canadian Workforce” established that Only 38% of sick leave and 23% of family responsibility leave in Canada is paid. Discouragingly, workers in certain industries more heavily exposed  to infection are the least likely to be able to work from home and the least likely to have their leave paid
for by an employer. Accommodation and food services, retail, and a broad category including janitors, temporary workers, tour operators and travel agencies, fall into this category, with only 19%, 37% and 32% of leave paid for respectively. This is further proof that temporary workers face increased  barriers.

There are currently two umbrella programs in which temporary labour migration streams are grouped under: the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the International Mobility Program (IMP). Data provided from the IRCC, Temporary Residents, from 31 July 2019 show that in 2018 there was
84,116 permit holders in the TFW Program and 254,520 permit holders in the International Mobility Program. In total, that is over 338,600 people working under temporary work conditions as of 2018. That means over 338,600 people will disproportionately suffer if the government does not act now.

For weeks, New Democrats have been calling on the government to make sure no on falls through the cracks in this pressing time. As demonstrated, TFWs are a particularly vulnerable group during this time. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has publicly stated the window to contain the
spread of COVID-19 is closing rapidly. Therefore, we request that the Government takes urgent action to immediately implement increased access to healthcare services, and appropriate EI benefits so that TFWs will not disproportionately suffer, and that this is communicated effectively to these groups.

This is a time where unity is needed more now than ever. To echo the words of Dr. Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the World Health Organization, “We cannot forget Migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers…the only way to beat coronavirus is to leave no one behind…we need to avoid exclusions as we are all in this together.”

I am are sure you can recognize the urgency of this situation and would appreciate it if you or your office would please respond to these inquiries as soon as possible.

I look forward to your prompt response to this urgent matter.

Jenny Kwan
Member of Parliament for Vancouver East

Cc: The Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos (Vice-Chair)
The Hon. Navdeep Singh Bains
The Hon. William Sterling Blair
The Hon. Patricia Hajdu
The Hon. Mélanie Joly
The Hon. William Francis Morneau
The Hon. Carla Qualtrough
The Honourable Kirsty Duncan

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