Updated: Apr 20, 2020
“Canada is declaring the food supply chain workers as essential. And while this measure seems obvious at this moment, most Canadians do not realize that agricultural workers are essential always, not only during a pandemic,”
INQUIRER.net US Bureau / Alberta Correspondent / 11:30 AM April 03, 2020
RED DEER, Alberta – Migrants across Canada, including Filipinos, are reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some sectors have called for more inclusivity in leaders’ and governments’ approaches to quelling the virus.
A March16 order by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to close the country’s border, limiting entry only to Canadians, permanent residents and those with official businesses, created confusion and fear among the ranks of foreign workers and their advocates.
The allowed entry did not include those with temporary status who were outside Canada, effectively preventing one Filipina caregiver from returning to Canada while vacationing in Mexico with her employer.
It took four days, on March 20, for the federal government’s immigration department to clarify that those with valid temporary status in Canada – workers, students, or those with approved permanent status before the travel restrictions — can enter safely, unless they are showing symptoms of the novel corona virus.
On January 25, Canada’s first presumptive case was a resident of Toronto, Ontario who traveled in Wuhan. To date, Canada has 9,613 cases, with Quebec having the most number of confirmed cases, and the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia coming next.
Social distancing, mandatory self-isolation for returning travelers, class cancellations have been imposed since Canada saw an uptrend in the number of affected communities.
The country has ramped up its public health agencies to increase testing, and has asked hospitals around the country to prepare intensive care units, while converting other in-hospital spaces to accommodate potential COVID-19 cases.
Meanwhile, a handful of businesses, including major airlines, have temporarily closed their doors to help curb the spread. The result is massive layoffs in many industries, among those affected are temporary foreign workers.
Most provincial governments have announced mandatory closure of non-essential businesses. Restrictions were put in place for close contact businesses including wellness clinics and non-essential retail services.
Grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery services and other essential services continue to operate.
The federal government is helping citizens through the allocation of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a measure promising up to $2,000 monthly subsidy for four months to qualified individuals.
In addition, provincial governments have instituted programs such as utility and mortgage deferral, renters’ protection, among other programs.
Canada is keeping its doors open to temporary foreign workers in order to “safeguard the continuity of trade, commerce, health and food security,” according to Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
In the March 20 advisory, IRCC guaranteed foreign workers who have valid permits are allowed travel to Canada.
IRCC added a temporary modification is being made to the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process for agriculture and food processing industries so that the required 2-week recruitment period will be waived for the next 6 months.
The department has also moved to increase the maximum allowable employment duration for workers in the low-wage stream of the TFW program from one to two years to improve flexibility and reduce administrative burden for employers.
Canada’s farmers hire workers from Caribbean countries, including Guatemala and Mexico to plant and harvest between the months of April until fall, but some of these countries have closed their borders to help curb the COVID-19, leaving the farmers in fear for potential lack in manpower this year.
Some 60,000 workers are hired every year but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed labor regulatory bodies to implement safety measures for the workers’ protection, including requiring employers to have procedures for safe transport of workers from the airport and to quarantine facilities for the mandatory 14-day isolation.
Poor housing, stigma
Critics however are demanding more enforcement of workers’ protection after 14 Mexican farmworkers tested positive for COVID-19 in Kelowna, British Columbia. The workers were employed by Bylands Nurseries Ltd. Non-government organization Sanctuary Health spokesman Byron Cruz said the infection could be due to poor housing conditions. “The government has come up with guidelines for the farm owners, but no monitoring or enforcement mechanism has been put in place,” said Cruz in an interview with INQUIRER.net. Cruz cited a farm in Fraser Valley, B.C. where some 90 farmworkers live in one house, an ideal environment where infection could spread. “Workers are afraid to report because they might not get invited again next season, or for fear that they will be repatriated if they get sick,” he said.
Rights advocates are also questioning who is responsible for compensating the workers while on 14-day isolation upon arrival. “Workers have been abandoned by employers and are relying on the support of community groups for food,” said Cruz.
Moreover, workers have to deal with stigma whether in Canada or in their originating countries. Recently, some 190 workers were sent back to Guatemala by a cannabis company due to temporary closure. The workers were not welcomed back by the communities as they were accused of bringing the virus from Canada, shared Cruz.
“Canada is declaring the food supply chain workers as essential. And while this measure seems obvious at this moment, most Canadians do not realize that agricultural workers are essential always, not only during a pandemic,” said Vanesa Ortiz, organizer for Association of Mexicans in Calgary.
“Many others of our community members are working as non-status immigrants without any type of protection or health care services,” she said. “Our main concern is the non-status migrants and the way they are being left behind in every possible way. They cannot access health care, they are not protected by the non-eviction measures, they cannot access any type of emergency benefit, food banks, mental health care, police services, among other services mainly because they’re terrified of deportation and further marginalization,” she added.
The burden of survival during the time of pandemic weighs heavy on those undocumented. These former members of Canada’s workforce are without access to social services, including the emergency fund released by the government to aid communities across Canada.
Forty-eight member advocacy group Migrant Rights Network is calling on the federal government to include the vulnerable sector in the allocation of the emergency fund.
“The government has said it will be asking for Social Insurance Numbers when workers apply for support when workers apply for support. This will exclude undocumented people, workers in transition from one kind of permit to another, and workers recently arriving who have not received SIN yet,” said the group on its website.
Eligibility also includes having earned at least $5000 in the last twelve months – an impossible requirement for those who work under-the-table to get by since no record of employment could show their earnings.
The group is gathering support through an online campaign where supporters are patched through cabinet ministers to demand that the emergency fund gets to everyone regardless of immigration or previous work status.
Meanwhile, Filipino overseas workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan can access a $200 cash assistance from the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
Calgary Philippine Consul General Zaldy Patron confirmed his office is awaiting guidelines from DOLE to provide the cash assistance to Filipino workers whose work has been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with INQUIRER.net, Patron said no reports have been disclosed to his office of Filipino afflicted by the virus, citing privacy laws.
Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain the number of Filipino workers affected by business closures, he said. “We are aware that many Filipinos in Alberta and Saskatchewan are working in restaurants, retail service, daycare and some general services industries where many establishments are now temporarily closed,” said Patron.
Patron pointed out Filipinos can be found even in big companies, such as WestJet Airlines Ltd., and hence, most likely affected by the massive layoffs. There are an estimated 175,000 Filipinos in Alberta and 34,000 in Saskatchewan.
He advised affected Filipinos to take advantage of the provincial government emergency assistance funds, worth up to $1,146 in Alberta, and $900 in Saskatchewan, in addition to the federal government’s CERB.
The office temporarily closed on March 20 however, it still provides services and can answer inquiries via email. An emergency phone number is also available in cases of arrests or death which is found on their website.
Philippine Embassy in Ottawa First Secretary and Consul Eric Aquino said reports have been received of Filipino workers being laid off due to the COVID-19 crisis in Toronto and Vancouver.
The Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in those cities are supporting the affected workers by coordinating with the recruitment agencies for assistance. Aquino said the workers may be eligible to receive the DOLE-led emergency assistance.
“We advise Filipinos in Canada to follow local government directives on physical distancing and personal hygiene. They should stay home and avoid unnecessary travel, but keep in touch with their friends and family by other means such as video calling or social media,” he said.