As the Fort McMurray emergency passes, those without housing and citizenship status face an uncertain future.
Over 160 temporary foreign workers from Fort McMurray came together at an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss issues of status and access to services. The workers were among the close to 90,000 evacuated last Tuesday when a fire burned through the Northern Alberta town closest to the oil sands.
For a moment temporary foreign workers shared the same harrowing experience as their fellow citizens: find rest, housing and food. But in the long-term, residence and potential citizenship of foreign workers may be at risk.
“The burden they carry is their status,” says Marco Luciano, Alberta spokesperson with the Coalition for Migrant Workers Rights. “It depends on their employer. They cannot find other means of survival.”
Hitched to employers
Temporary foreign worker (TFW) status is tied to the employer that brought them over for work. And Fort McMurray’s formerly booming economy survived with temporary workers taking on service industry and caretaking jobs. Luciano says it’s evidence the TFW program needs to be changed to grant permanent residence.
“These are permanent jobs,” says Luciano. “Permanent residency should be upon arrival so that they can also access what Canadians and permanent residents can access from government.”
With the entire town and surrounding areas evacuated many foreign workers have not heard from their employers. Residents of Fort McMurray cannot return to the town for at least two weeks. Luciano says temporary workers are concerned it will mean their employers may not return to the city, leaving them without work and without status.
“They don’t know their future,” says Luciano.
Many workers many not have a fixed address or may have lost their documents to the fire.
“Many left with just the clothes on their back,” says Luciano. “A bus picked them up from work and took them to Edmonton.”
As of 2014, Alberta had 19,621 temporary foreign workers, many of whom were employed in sectors supporting the oil economy in and around Fort McMurray. Luciano says with 160 attending the first meeting only a week after the evacuation, it’s a sign many more will show up with the same concerns, and needs for housing.
Permanent residency should be [granted] upon arrival so that they can also access what Canadians and permanent residents can access from government.
The immediate need of shelter and food has been met not only at the city’s official evacuation centre in Northlands, but through private donations of temporary housing.
Established support communities began as soon as the evacuation order was called to start finding temporary housing for those without family in the city or the province.
“Everyone was in the same boat,” says Arundeep Singh Sandhu.
Community steps up
Edmonton’s Sikh community was ready on Tuesday welcoming and finding housing for almost a hundred evacuees. The Guru Nanak Sikh Society mobilized to start finding everything from basement suites to available apartments to house evacuees.
“We wanted to fill that gap before government and insurance are able to step in,” says Sandhu.
He estimates 160 to 170 were found housing by Saturday.
But now the long-term needs have started to set in.
“We’ve actually had to start turning people away because we don’t have longer term accommodation,” says Sandu.
Carryover from welcoming refugees
Organizers at the Al Rashid mosque on Edmonton’s north side are facing a similar situation.
“People are welcome to stay as long as they need,” says Omar Najmaddine, executive director at the mosque. “But its not the perfect place for families. It’s open space.”
Najmeddine estimates the mosque housed over 120 evacuees in the immediate few days after the evacuation and continued to see people arrive as late as Sunday. Najmaddine says he quickly reached out to contacts at the mosque in Fort McMurray and across social media to let people know the centre was open in Edmonton.
Najmadinne says part of the reason donors and volunteers were able to mobilize so quickly is due to the work to welcome government sponsored Syrian refugees who arrived in the city just a few months ago. The mosque had coordinated the Edmonton Islamic Relief Centre for the arrival of Syrian refugees. And many Edmontonians who have been working to sponsor families privately have networks to help organize donations and housing.
One week after the evacuation order, he estimates 70 to 80 evacuees remain in the mosque using the two floors of cots as temporary shelter. He has seen large families, recent immigrants and four families of Syrian refugees flow through the centre over the week.
…with residence tied to employment, Luciano says the government must act to remove restrictions to allow temporary foreign workers to work not just for their employer.
“They moved to Fort Mac, and then moved here,” says Najmeddine.
Now longer term housing is needed.
“We’ve got a lot of people looking for two to three months of housing,” says Najmeddine.
Organizers at the mosque began to collect information about longer-term temporary housing early in the evacuation process, not knowing how long the housing may be needed. The list is being used to help find places for people who have no where else to go.
For temporary foreign workers the long-term looks even more uncertain.
Temporary foreign workers have access to the supports announced by the province. Adults are able to collect $1250 and $500 per dependent. Details on how to access that assistance will be provided starting May 11. But with residence tied to employment, Luciano says the government must act to remove restrictions to allow temporary foreign workers to work not just for their employer.
The Slave Lake fire in 2011 left 60 temporary foreign workers in a similar unstable situation. The Alberta government has set up a direct assistance line for temporary foreign workers and new immigrant nominees who have been displaced.
Luciano’s group is working to coordinate temporary foreign workers in the city and has started a petition asking for the government to ease work restrictions and create an open work permit for those who need it.