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.


Justicia for Migrant Workers

ACTION: Send a letter to Ministers – Trinidadian workers need government support benefits now!

As reported by the Toronto Star today, right now, hundreds of migrant farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago are stranded in Canada.

Their contracts have now come to an end as their services are no longer needed in winter. These workers are unable to go back home to their families because of travel restrictions by their sending country. They are stuck here in the Canadian cold with no form of income support and no assistance of any kind from the Trudeau government. These workers are being forced to spend precious holiday time far away from their families, with no income, no shelter, no winter clothing.

Please join us in calling on Ministers to take action NOW.

The following email template makes it easy — just enter your contact info and click “send”!


Over 100 migrant farm workers from Trinidad & Tobago are stuck in Canada. When will the federal government step up?

As reported by the CBC, more than 100 migrant agricultural workers from Trinidad and Tobago have been stuck in Canada and can’t get home because of COVID-19 concerns. They now have to endure the Canadian winter with no access to any kind of income support. Justicia for Migrant Workers sent the following letter to hold decision-makers accountable. We invite you to do the same — feel free to adapt our letter and use the email addresses below.


Open Letter re: Stranded Migrant Workers from Trinidad and Tobago

TO:     The Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development (

The Honourable Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees & Citizenship (

The Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion (

December 7, 2020

Dear Honourable Ministers Hussen, Mendicino, and Qualtrough,

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit the world, your government deemed foreign seasonal farm workers to be essential and took exceptional steps in getting the workers into Canada from the Caribbean and Mexico. You then made them work under hazardous conditions with minimal support, all to ensure that Canadian farmers could make profits and so Canada gets local food on the table. Now, when they are no longer needed by the farmers because of the weather, you have abandoned these racialized migrant farm workers.

Hundreds of workers from Trinidad and Tobago have toiled through the harvest this year through the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program (SAWP). Their contracts have now come to an end as their services are no longer needed in winter. These workers are unable to go back home to their families because of COVID concerns. They are stuck here in the Canadian cold with no form of income support and no assistance of any kind from your government. They have to pay for rent, for food, for clothing and all basic necessities with no income.

Their situation is particularly unconscionable because these workers are eligible for Employment Insurance as per the regulations, which they have paid into during their service for your country, and yet Service Canada refused to use their discretion in granting them the benefits (Phone call meeting between J4MW and Service Canada December 4, 2020).

Service Canada went so far to advise that the workers should pay the fees for their work permits, even though, as per IRCC directives for seasonal farm workers and the interstate bilateral agreements, it is the employer that pays for the work permit. At the same time, migrant workers who do hold a valid work permit and have already submitted their applications for EI have received negative decisions from Service Canada, stating that because they hold a closed work permit, “they are not ready and available for work”.

In De Jesus v. Canada (AG) 2013 FCA 264, a case that dealt with parental EI benefits, the Federal Court of Appeal stated:

[13] The unique disadvantages in the Canadian labour market of agricultural workers as a whole, and migrant workers in particular, are well known. These disadvantages commonly include: ineligibility for many social benefits, including most unemployment insurance benefits; exclusion from many statutory protections of workers (including representation by a union); low educational level, functional illiteracy, and lack of knowledge of English or French; social isolation, and lack of access to telephones, computers, and urban centres; long and arduous working schedules with little free time; and fear of employer reprisal and deportation

[14] Like other employees, SAWP workers have employment insurance contributions deducted from their pay cheques. Unlike most other employees, however, they are generally ineligible for benefits, including regular employment insurance benefits, because they leave Canada at the end of their seasonal employment, and cease to be available for work or present in Canada. [emphasis added]

The SAWP workers are currently present in Canada and are therefore eligible for regular benefits as per the reasoning of the Federal Court of Appeal.  Yet, Service Canada refuses to grant them EI benefits by foisting the blame on IRCC/ESDC.

Furthermore, the Principles of Benefit Entitlement clearly states that

[A] claimant who does not currently possess a work permit is not automatically considered unavailable for work. In some cases, the claimant may be able to obtain a work permit as soon as employment is secured, because of the type of work they perform, or because of the individual’s skills. Consequently, the lack of a work permit is not the only factor to be considered when determining availability. The Commission must take into account all factors normally considered when determining a claimant’s availability.

[Digest of Benefit Entitlement Principles Chapter 10 – Section 10.2.4]

In many cases, the Tribunal has found that if the worker has taken “prompt and reasonable steps” to search for work and obtain employment, especially under circumstances beyond their control, they are eligible for EI even if their work permit has expired (See e.g. O. O. v Canada Employment Insurance Commission, 2019 SST 868; Canada Employment Insurance Commission  v. L.B., AD-13-1140).

Service Canada’s fettering of their discretion, in the face of precedent and their own principle, is a grave injustice and a perversion of the rule of law. These Trinidadian workers have gone above and beyond in taking “prompt and reasonable steps” to obtain status in Canada, even under the most extenuating circumstances beyond their control, and in fact beyond the control of the entire world as the battle against the pandemic continues. They are stuck in Canada because they are being prevented from traveling due to the pandemic.

In their desperate situation, they have pressured their government to send directives to their employers to process their LMIAs (which allows them to get a work permit) and to ask ESDC and IRCC to process them at the earliest (Notice from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to employers, December 1, 2020). They have tried to find employers who can process their LMIAs. They have sought support for accessing benefits. As such, they have done everything humanly possible in this unforeseeable situation to show they are searching for work and are available for work. They are being made to endure circumstances that simply should not be tolerated in Canada. It is unconscionable that Service Canada is not responding to the situation and providing them with prompt benefits.

The Tax Court of Canada, in a case concerning Guatemalan workers in the agri-food industry, has held that the employment contracts of foreign workers are valid and the workers are eligible for employment insurance even if they do not comply with the work permit (Godoy Enriquez v. M.N.R., 2019 TCC 114).  The Court found that “the prohibition on work by foreign nationals without a permit is intended primarily to protect job opportunities for Canadian citizens and to prevent collective bargaining from being obstructed by the hiring of foreign nationals.” [(para 85)]. The Court stated that as per Canada’s obligation under international instruments, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Canada has an obligation to protect the rights of workers to social security, including employment insurance (paras 91-93). Thus, according to the Court’s reasoning, the interpretation of IRPA, taking into account its objectives and principles, mandates that workers cannot be denied their right to EI and other benefits.

The Court further affirms that migrant farm workers “are a beneficial and critical human resource for both the economy and the greater good of all Canadians” (para 95), “an enrichment, and even a fundamental necessity to the stability and development of Canada’s agri‑food industry” (112) and that it is “a matter of general interest for Canadian society” that their important contribution to the Canadian economy be recognized and it is “unacceptable” to exclude them and abandon seasonal workers (paras 95, 14 emphasis added). The Court asserted that “it is urgent and imperative that the government… respond to seasonal workers’ problems and concerns before they arrive, upon their arrival and throughout their time in Canada” (para 14 emphasis added).  It is therefore appalling that Service Canada has instead abandoned them in the midst of a pandemic and the onset of winter.

Honourable Minister Hussen, you personally have strongly come out against Anti-Black racism and systemic racism within Canada’s borders. You said: “… the sooner we acknowledge [systemic racism], the sooner we amplify the voices of those who feel that sting of discrimination of racism as part of their lived reality, the sooner we’ll be able to tackle it and to eradicate it [Toronto Star, June 3rd 2020].” Yet, the very Ministry you lead, practices and embeds systemic racism against Black and racialized migrant workers, by discriminating against them and denying them the benefits they are entitled to, that they have paid into, during their time doing essential farm labour in Canada. We urge you to acknowledge the discrimination they face.

Honourable Ministers, the workers cannot wait anymore, insecure and without income, as you play jurisdictional football with them. We demand that you make the decision to pay the workers who are currently in Canada Employment Insurance benefits before December 10th. Any further delay is an abuse of process, abuse of discretion, and denial of natural justice.

Honourable Ministers Qualtrough and Mendicino, you have made the workers wholly reliant on their employers by making the work permit conditional on LMIAs. You have not even exempted the work permit processing fees. These workers are being forced to spend precious holiday time in Canada far away from their families, in the Canadian winter, with no income, no shelter, no clothing.  Instead of showing gratitude and compassion you have made the situation into a travesty where in their time of need, the workers are put in a worse situation of oppression and disempowerment. How are you even justifying your action? We demand that the stranded workers be immediately given open work permits,  with no conditions of requiring LMIAs to work in Canada and with no repercussions or administrative hurdles that would affect their future return to Canada.  We demand that the permit fees be waived for these workers. We also demand that they be given permanent residence status.

This incident concerning the Trinidadian workers cannot be seen as an isolated, unfortunate event; it is the outcome of a system of discrimination and oppression that is perpetuated by Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker programs in agriculture.  Migrant agricultural workers are crucial to the functioning of the agricultural industry functioning. Many of these workers have been returning to work at the same farm each year, for many years. It is estimated that SAWP workers pay an estimated $21.5 million annually in EI premiums and have paid billions of dollars into EI since 1966, which have supported Canadian workers for decades, even as your Ministries exclude them from ever availing of the benefit through the application of discriminatory and racist regulations. The people who grow our fruits and vegetables, the people who put food on our tables, should not face perpetual impoverishment because of an unpredictable climate, and even more so, during a pandemic. We cannot simply ignore their calls for justice. Do you find it easier to do so because they are “racialized foreign migrant workers” who the government has wilfully invisibilized?

The legacy of colonialism continues to drive thousands of migrants to Canada in search of work, who your government takes advantage of, thus perpetuating colonialism and racism. In fact, just last week, the Federal Government has increased the program by expanding the definition of Primary Agriculture. This expanded definition implies that you will be excluding greater numbers of racialized migrant farm workers from basic employment standards and benefits, even as they contribute billions of dollars to the economy and revenue. This racial apartheid cannot continue.

We therefore call on the government to:

  1. 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;
  2. Remove the conditions predicating access to regular EI benefits on their work permit and their physically being in Canada. Provide equal access to the regular employment insurance benefits for migrant workers, after they go back to their countries, through the development of interstate agreements between the governments of Canada and the countries from which migrant workers originate. This access can be modelled on similar agreements that already exist with the United States and inter-state agreements globally;
  3. Restore migrant workers’ access to special EI entitlements including parental, maternity and compassionate benefits;
  4. Provide migrant workers with access to training and education and all social and income benefits in Canada and when they are back in their home countries;
  5. Waive all fees for applications for work permits for farm work.
  6. Provide all workers arriving in Canada under SAWP or the Agricultural Streams with open work permits that are not dependent on LMIAs.
  7. Provide them with permanent residence status on arrival.

Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW)