Canada will allow stranded farm workers to apply for open work permits, access supports

·3 min read

The Canadian government will allow seasonal farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago who are stranded in Canada to apply for open work permits so they can access health care and employment insurance while they wait to go home.

The Caribbean country's borders have been closed since March because of COVID-19, and officials there are only allowing a small number of people to come back at a time because of limited space for them to quarantine. Canadian officials are continuing to negotiate for their return.

In the meantime, workers — estimated to be in the hundreds — are stuck on Canadian farms, wondering when they'll be able to leave or how they'll support themselves through the winter months.

On Tuesday, the office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) issued a statement saying the Canadian government is "seized" with the situation and working to ensure they have access to housing and other services.

"IRCC has issued a public policy that allows the workers to apply for an open work permit, which will formalize their status and help them get access to health care and employment insurance, among other support measures," read an email from press secretary Alexander Cohen.

Advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers described the open work permits as a "proactive step," but said more details are needed.

"It is essential that open work permits are provided for all migrants ... and that Canada implements a system where all migrants have permanent status on arrival," read a media release.

It added that the government's policy should be extended to all migrant workers in the country and called for proactive inspections to ensure the housing where they'll be staying is adequately winterized.

"We demand to know the precise information on how many workers have reached home and how many are still waiting to leave and how many will be remaining through the next season," it said.

Staff with the IRCC and Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) say they have been working to help the workers fill out applications before their current permits expired on Dec. 15 and making sure they know about what services are available.

"We will continue to do all that we can to support these workers until they can get home," said Cohen.

ESDC also says it's working with local authorities and consular officials to look after the workers and help them return as soon as possible.

'Kind of heart-wrenching'

Kenneth Sookdeo, a worker at Schuyler Farms near Simcoe, Ont., previously told CBC that he had applied for employment insurance, which he's paid into every season here, and been rejected.

Most of the money workers earned labouring through the pandemic was sent back to their families, so they'll need something to live on now that the harvest is over and work has slowed down, he said.

"It's just whatever little that we have in savings. That is what we are using right now to buy our groceries."

Sidique Ali-Hosein, another worker stuck at Schuyler Farms, said being so far from loved ones has been difficult, especially as the holidays approach.

"As bad as it is with COVID and everything, you're still looking forward to spending that time with your siblings and extended family and having that special time. You know, that Christmas spirit," he said.

"It was a huge sacrifice for everybody to leave their family and ... come over here and work to get an income to go back. It was kind of heart-wrenching."