Climate justice for migrants and EI: Our letter to the federal government

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister Qualtrough, Minister Bibeau, and Minister Fraser,

Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW)  writes to reiterate that migrant workers must receive full and equal access to Canada’s Employment Insurance (“EI”) benefit. Since 1966, workers employed under the auspices of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have contributed millions of dollars in benefits. However, as a result of their tied work permits, they have been denied access to our social safety net in their time of need.

We support the call for better access, improving benefit rates and a new annual federal contribution to EI. Our demands are as follows:

  1. Permanent status on arrival
  2. No worker should face reprisals, repatriation, or disbarment for accessing benefits or exerting their rights.
  3. Expedite the EI process and ensure migrant and non-status workers are able to get benefits;
  4. Open permits immediately, access to training, and access to employment supports so that workers are not trapped in this situation in the future;
  5. Review access and data requests on EI access for migrant workers, to determine how many workers are facing the same issue;
  6. Treat all migrants in this situation as one workplace and implement a dedicated unit to support workers in these situations. Also, for the future, create a separate sub-department to address EI for migrant farm workers to increase accessibility through an easy streamlined process and to expedite the process;
  7. One of the sub-department’s duties must be consultation with migrant farm worker advocates so that the sub-department knows about and can immediately respond to crisis situations like the ones we have brought to the federal government;
  8. The EI system should be available with “no questions asked” so that individuals are able to access the benefits they have paid into;
  9. Reverse all decisions denying regular EI benefits to migrant farm workers, that were made on the basis that they were unavailable to work because of their work permit status. Award benefits to all workers who have applied immediately;
  10. Ensure that migrant workers are provided all entitlements under our EI system including access to paid training and education programs.
  11. Develop and implement a clear EI access policy that operates on the presumption that migrant agricultural workers are looking for alternate work, and makes their entitlement to EI separate from the nature of their work permits – this would enable more expedited access to EI in the future;
  12. Restore migrant workers’ access to special EI benefits;
  13. Develop a pilot project to examine the establishment of EI interstate agreements with sending countries, so that workers can receive their payments when they return home, or if they are repatriated.

Since 2001, through our involvement with migrant workers, we have raised concerns regarding their contributions to EI without having access to it. In 2002, a member of J4MW advocated with a migrant worker to apply for EI parental benefits, which was successful. This first EI claim enabled thousands of workers to access these benefits to support their families.

In 2013, the federal government took the draconian and egregious step of restricting EI special benefits access to workers who possess valid work permits, thus denying thousands of workers access to benefits upon return to their home country. As you are well aware, Canadians who are overseas do not face the same restrictions as migrant workers to accessing EI special benefits.

With respect to access to regular EI benefits, migrants face multiple barriers. We have seen this with the ongoing pandemic and closure of multiple workplaces, but workers are also impacted by climate change. Pre-pandemic, agricultural migrants have been terminated and repatriated because of crop loss attributed to environmental or direct human factors. The current climate disaster in British Columbia is only the latest salvo in an ongoing devastating environmental disaster that has disproportionately impacted vulnerable communities.

Migrant farm workers have experienced the impact of climate change both in their home country and currently here in Canada. In 2017, for example, migrant farm workers from Dominica were stranded in Canada as a result of the devastation that was inflicted on the island from Hurricane Maria. No policies existed then or now to support this group of workers. Advocacy groups wrote to the federal government to develop immediate steps to address this failure of the government to assist in this prior crisis, but their calls for action to prevent climate racism were met with silence.

This past season’s fires, extreme heat, and now flooding have created significant obstacles for the agricultural industry. While both provincial and federal governments have developed support mechanisms to assist the industry, still no steps have been taken to support the industry’s workers. It is essential that the federal government develop proactive measures not piecemeal efforts to address the long term consequences of pandemics, economic uncertainty, and climate change. Short-term relief will not address systemic policy failures. Climate and economic injustice are intertwined both for migrants here and their home countries. Current EI policies undermine migrants’ access to income support. These issues will only heighten as climate disasters become more frequent and severe.

At the start of the COVID pandemic, J4MW requested immediate and urgent action to extend EI benefits to migrant workers who were stranded in their home country. Unemployed and unable to access their country’s own social safety net, restrictive work permits denied migrants access to benefits despite the strong labour attachment that this community has to our industry. They are praised as essential labour yet denied any benefits connected to this much heralded status. They are also described as “falling through the cracks,” as though the failure of this system can be attributed to unintended error, rather than a program designed to exploit migrant labour. This community is the backbone of our agricultural industry, and in return Canada denies them citizenship or even permanent residence status.

Rather than enable workers to seek other employment or access to EI benefits, migrants are routinely sent home. Workers who are terminated or are in the process of changing their place of employment are continuously denied benefits. As opposed to other groups of workers who can access Ontario Works or other means of financial support, migrant workers are undermined by onerous restrictive immigration practices in a system where access to justice (i.e. appeals) does not exist.

While in Canada, EI officials routinely deny workers access to benefits. For example, during the pandemic, tobacco workers, whose crops were damaged as a result of frost, were not not able to access EI benefits. They were then left destitute because all levels of government failed to take systemic action. In 2020, when over 400 Trinidadian migrant workers were stranded, many were found ineligible for EI, and it was only after persistent advocacy that the federal government created a special one-time open work permit scheme, under which some workers were able to access benefits.

Migrants from other jurisdictions who were stranded were not able to access EI benefits. Their efforts were greatly hindered due to barriers to electronic services, inability to make contact with EI agents, and the onerous reporting system. Many workers described the levels of surveillance and outright hostility they faced. This is attributed to the false belief that as ‘foreign’ workers they are ineligible for EI benefits. Employers have also taken steps to ensure that workers can not receive benefits. Last year, we heard migrant workers from a farm near London were discouraged from applying for EI benefits. When the workers did, they faced threats of termination and reprisal for doing so. Workers at additional farms allege that their contracts were terminated, and they were denied access to EI because they married Canadians.

In several cases, as workers’ status expired and they were not able to leave Canada because of border closures, they were left without income support. Community groups stepped up to the plate to provide clothing and food. Charity, however, will never address the systemic underpinnings of both a discriminatory and racist EI system coupled with an equally egregious Temporary Foreign Worker Program that is driven by the needs of employers and not in the interest of the community or workers.

In addition, while the current government policy centres the development of a gender lens, it is not clear that  gender (and racialized) lens has been undertaken to examine the impact of current EI policies on racialized women migrants from the global south. In our experience, women migrants have faced additional hurdles. Migrant women have been denied access to EI sickness benefits, resulting in these migrants undertaking lengthy appeals at the Social Security Tribunal, all while they have no income. Furthermore, migrant women have articulated the unique and specific barriers they have endured during the pandemic and the impact that the denial of EI benefits has had on their well-being during the pandemic,

Unemployment Insurance and the many reforms that have been enacted are a legacy of resistance by workers. From the On to Ottawa Trek, to the thousands of protests, occupations, marches, and other advocacy initiatives that continue to preserve the system that exists today. These activists developed a vision to implement a system that would protect and shield workers from the worst aspects of job loss and economic loss on the well being of our society. EI was built to prevent shocks on the back of workers. Reforms addressed the previous failures of government unemployment policies that discriminated against women and workers in seasonal industries.

The federal government must immediately address the current crisis and ensure that EI benefits are truly accessible, portable, and universal to all agricultural workers, regardless of their immigration status. Non-status workers and temporary foreign workers cannot be heralded for their sacrifices while Canada sacrifices their well being by denying access to benefits they deserve. This is not simply a call to extend status quo policies. Immediate steps including ending tied work permits and extending EI benefits to all without restrictions are short term policy options. Transformative changes are required to fully appreciate the current context of work in an ongoing global crisis. Maintaining workers under a system where they are tied to an employer is not sustainable. Borders controls and immigration status can no longer be wielded by the state to exclude nor deny essential workers access to Canada’s social safety net.

Sincerely,

Justicia for Migrant Workers

j4mw.on@gmail.com
www.harvestingfreedom.org

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