B.C. migrant, undocumented workers rally for permanent residency program

VANCOUVER — Migrant workers and advocates called for a "just recovery" from the COVID-19 pandemic during a digital rally on Saturday.

The pandemic has shown how heavily Canada relies on migrant and undocumented workers to perform essential jobs, said Chit Arma, who chairs the Migrant Workers Centre's board of directors in Vancouver.

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"The pandemic has also exposed the extent to which these essential workers do not enjoy essential rights, and the long-standing systemic problems with the temporary foreign work program that puts workers in an extremely precarious position," she said during the video conference.

The rally is part of the Amnesty for Undocumented Workers Campaign led by the Migrant Workers Centre.

The campaign calls the federal government to create a new permanent residency program for all essential migrant and undocumented workers, and to allow the workers to apply for an open-work permit while waiting for their applications to process.

No one at the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada could immediately be reached for comment.

On July 31, the federal government announced $58.6 million in funding that it said would boost protections for temporary foreign workers and address COVID-19 outbreaks on farms.

Of that, $35 million was earmarked to improve health and safety on farms and in employee living quarters to prevent the spread of COVID-19. About $7.4 million would support the workers, including $6 million for direct outreach delivered through migrant support organizations, the government said.

The government also said it was working to develop mandatory requirements to improve living conditions in employer-provided accommodations.

In August, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced a temporary measure to provide a pathway to permanent residency for asylum claimants working in health-care during the pandemic.

Under the measure, the frontline workers would be able to apply for permanent residency if they met certain criteria, including having made a an asylum claim before March 13 and having been issued a work permit after their claim.

"This approach recognizes those with precarious immigration status who are filling an urgent need and putting their own lives at risk to care for others in Canada," the government said in a news release.

Natalie Drolet, executive director of the Migrant Workers Centre, said the measure excludes other frontline workers like grocery store clerks, truckers and care workers.

"While this is a positive step, it leaves too many migrant workers and undocumented workers behind who have also been on the front lines in the pandemic," Drolet said.

Migrants and undocumented workers play key roles as health-care workers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, care workers, truckers and agricultural workers, Arma said.

More than 1,300 migrant workers in Ontario alone have been infected with COVID-19 she said. Three have died, including one undocumented worker, she said.

Arma came to Canada in 2005 to work as a caregiver. Her temporary status in Canada gave her stress and anxiety, she said.

"I had papers, I had documents, and yet I had that fear of being removed, a fear of speaking up because I might be deported," she said.

"I can imagine how undocumented workers are experiencing even worse because of the lack of documents they have."

Maria Cano arrived to work as a caregiver in 2017 through the temporary foreign worker program. She said the experience showed how disempowering the experience could be, even before the pandemic struck.

Cano worked for four different families and moved to three different cities in her first few years. They expected to work long hours without compensation, she said.

"When I spoke up, I lost my job," she said. "That entire process was very stressful and financially draining."

She finally found a "nice Canadian family" who treated her with respect and sponsored her but said others shouldn't hope for the same luck, they should be protected with recognized rights instead.

"The COVID-19 pandemic makes it more difficult and stressful for all the undocumented and migrant workers in Canada," she said.

Beginning Dec. 15, the B.C. government will require employers wishing to high foreign workers through federal programs to register with the province.

The government said in a news release Saturday that the measures would ensure the workers are paid for the hours they work, have accurate job descriptions and ensure their rights and safety are protected on the job.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2020.

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