When Ottawa announced a new federal program that would provide a path to permanent residency (PR) for temporary foreign workers in Canada, the effort was welcomed by many.
Under the program, 30,000 workers in essential roles such as transportation, construction, and agriculture will be able to apply to become permanent residents in May.
The program will also accept 20,000 foreign health care workers and 40,000 international students. This is part of the federal government’s efforts to reach its goal of admitting 401,000 immigrants in 2021.
But one migrant justice organization says the move is “a smokescreen that fails to address Canada’s racist and exclusionary immigration system.”
On April 22, Justicia For Migrant Workers (J4MW), a volunteer-run collective that advocates for the rights of migrant farm workers, published an open letter on their website in response to Ottawa’s program.
“The reforms do nothing to change the indentureship of thousands of migrant workers in Canada,” it reads.
“Migrant agricultural workers who work under a system of indentured labour will once again see no improvements to their working and living conditions as a result of the continuation of a closed work permit system that binds workers to one employer.”
“Instead, migrant farm workers are put into competition with over 90 other occupations for a measly 30,000 spots, when over 50,000 farm workers have entered Canada on tied work permits during the pandemic alone.”
The pandemic’s toll
Every year, between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign agricultural workers come to Canada, many from Central America and the Caribbean. They make up more than 60 per cent of all foreign workers under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
For these workers, work permits are tied to their employers, making them vulnerable to exploitation. While they are able to apply for open work permits, the threat of being deported makes it difficult for them to report employer abuse.
Language proficiency and education requirements make achieving permanent residency status prohibitive. Communal—and often cramped—living spaces, coupled with close-proximity working environments, meant the pandemic made both working and living situations more dangerous for workers.
In May and June of 2020, Mexican nationals Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero, Rogelio Munoz Santos, and Juan Lopez Chaparro died after contracting COVID-19. That year, more than 1,780 migrant workers in Ontario tested positive for the coronavirus.
More recently, the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change says that they are “aware of at least half a dozen migrant farm workers that have died this year.”
“What we see now [is that] migrant workers are part of the dialogue around essential workers. They’ve been coming to Canada since the 1960s through these programs, but the pandemic has highlighted their importance even more,” says Evelyn Encalada Grez, assistant professor in the labour studies program at Simon Fraser University’s sociology and anthropology department, and co-founder of J4MW.
“However, that hasn’t materialized into them being granted tangible rights. They’re still beholden to their employers,” she says.
“Not a victory at all”
Ottawa’s permanent residency program, which starts accepting applications today, requires that applicants meet language requirements, have valid temporary status or be eligible for its restoration, and complete both the application and payment online.
This leaves out workers who are undocumented. “This announcement doesn’t recognize this very vulnerable group of folks who are also part of the backbone of agriculture,” says Encalada Grez.
“There is no pathway for them to regularize their status in Canada.”
In the open letter, J4MW calls the language requirement in Ottawa’s program ‘discriminatory’ and that it would exclude most low-waged agricultural workers.
It also says that permanent residence fees have long restricted low-wage, racialized migrant workers and their families from receiving PR status.
“The overwhelming majority of participants in Canada’s long-standing agricultural indentured programs will reap no benefits to their everyday lived realities, despite their ongoing and continued resistance against deplorable housing and working conditions,” reads the letter.
Encalada Grez says the announcement is creating confusion and frustration among migrant workers.
“It’s another way of excluding migrant workers and playing around with their hopes and expectations, in a time when they’ve literally put their lives on the line to feed Canadians, and they’re not being rewarded or recognized appropriately in any way,” she says.
“It’s very unfortunate, and it’s not a victory at all.”
She adds that she thought the pandemic would finally usher in reforms to the SAWP and TFWP, as well as grant status to migrant farm workers.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take. If it’s not a pandemic, what else is it going to take for the Canadian government to recognize migrant farm workers and their families who have been part of our communities?” she says.
“They’re the ones that put their lives at risk constantly to feed us.”
On May 5, just a day before the program started accepting applications for permanent residency, application guidelines were published online. Immigration minister Marco Mendicino said that the program was “unprecedented,” and that he was open to receiving input from the immigration sector on how the program can be improved.
“I also acknowledge that because it’s a new program, that we have a lot of legwork to do to make sure that it is communicated clearly, and that there will be access to the program,” he said. “Our department stands at the ready to assist those who will be making their way through the applications process.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect later developments since it was first published.