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  • michellebancroft8

COVID-19 Intensifies Existing Challenges for Migrants in Canada

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Themes: Work, Social Justice, Anti-Racism, Health, Policy

Migrant Workers in the Canadian Economy

In recent years, the Canadian economy has seen trends encouraging workplace precarity and the increase in importing foreign workers. The prevalence of the neoliberal paradigm as an economic and political model and ideology, and the development of international trade along with the unbridled growth of the economy in Canada, have heightened the precarity of labour. Competition with countries employing cheaper labour is pushing Canadian companies to restructure their business plans based on cost-cutting strategies, including seeking out cheaper labour. In some sectors, flexibility and cost cuts have been accomplished by depending on foreign workers who are most often employed as cheap labour.

Under the neoliberal paradigm, responsibility for worker well-being, as well as legal liabilities, has transferred from businesses to workers. Moreover, union density has fallen in Canada, as in other global North countries. This workplace fissuring and union-busting strategies allow corporations to exploit foreign workers due to the nature of their temporary contracts and non-citizenship status.

Foreign-workers, come to host countries like Canada to work in sectors that are often regarded as non-desirable by citizens; these jobs are also precarious, low-paying, require demanding physical work, and are often dangerous. Due to the nature of these jobs, Canadians tend to steer clear from working in them. To tackle the problem of labour shortage in these sectors and in the name of cost-effectively stabilizing Canada’s economy, the Federal Government has decided to create programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Live-in-Caregivers Program. These programs focus on hiring foreign workers and providing them with permits to work in Canada temporarily.

According to the annual report released in 2019 by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), at the end of 2018 Canada issued work permits to 84,229 workers under the low-skilled Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to fill jobs in sectors like agriculture and caregiving. Additionally, 255,034 work permits were issued under the high-skilled International Mobility Program (IMP) to support a more pioneering, innovative, and knowledge-based economy jobs. Mostly attached to the latter program, 186,352 Permanent Resident Admissions were issued under the Economic Class Program. The chart below shows the number of work permits issued between 2016 to 2018 under TFWP, IMP and PR Admission issued under what is called the Economic Class Program. The first two programs, however, are packaged with policies that restrict migrant workers’ rights and result in exploitative discriminatory and violent treatment towards employees.

Migrant workers in Canada are predominantly employed in farmhouses, certain manufacturing jobs, domestic care work, personal support work, and seasonal construction work. Food and agriculture, healthcare, production and construction are essential sectors that rely on specific skills that migrant workers supply to the Canadian Labour Market. These are all vital industries that we need in order to survive; therefore, the large concentration and impact of migrants in these essential jobs should not be dismissed.

Structural Racism and Alienation of Migrant Workers

The vulnerability of migrant workers and their susceptibility to exploitation is engrained into Canada’s temporary migration work model. These workers are dependent on their employers for their basic life necessitates such as accommodation, food, and employment. These conditions produce a substantial power imbalance between the employer and the worker, creating prospects for mistreatment. Workers’ seclusion in their accommodation, and subjection to regulated controls by their employer, along with little government supervision, intensifies their precarious situations. Morever, and under the fear of deportation, workers are often afraid to complain about the abuse they experience. TFWs and caregivers, in particular, confront several challenges and much fewer government controls. For instance, workers possessing work permits that are bound to only one employer is one of the reasons behind their contingent status and the victimization they encounter in Canada. While the government has created open work permit programs for workers at risk, its provisions and rules make it difficult for them to seek support (Sorio, 2020). Another set of challenges is related to the fact that the onus to provide evidence of mistreatment lies on the worker. These provisions create a dilemma for most migrants who can not guarantee that they will be successful in providing adequate evidence due to the numerous barriers they have to bear, the fear of extreme retaliation from the employers and the high possibility of deportation losing their livelihood (Sorio, 2020). Other aspects, such as lack of information or assistance services, seclusion, and language difficulties, aggravate their vulnerability. A large number of migrant workers also come to Canada in debt to employment agencies and end up in situations of intimidation and labour trafficking. Employers feed on all these vulnerabilities that workers bear and utilize the cracks in our immigration and legal system to exploit workers without concern of consequences further.

Under the leadership of Harper’s Conservative Government, nationalist discourses played a crucial role in creating a suitable environment for these practices to cultivate. Nationalist discourses legitimize discrepancy of treatment and rights between “citizens” and those who are “non-citizens” (Choudry & Smith, 2016). The outcome is not necessarily the exclusion of all those who are “foreign,” but instead their subordination in Canada. While the Caregiver Pilot program allows some caregivers to apply for citizenship, this is often an exhausting and pricey procedure (Sorio, 2020). Migrant workers who work in farming and production industries, on the other hand, are exempt and cannot gain access to citizenship pathways. Migrant workers are also disadvantaged and even trapped in other aspects: they cannot bring their families to Canada along with them (Sorio, 2020). Moreover, temporary work contracts leave workers lonesome, helpless, and poorly paid. Its present business model is built on depriving migrants of their fundamental rights. However, and more significantly long-term, the worker has no career identity or life narrative to provide to their lives while in the country that they host working for.

There is no doubt, then: these policies are clearly connected to the creation of the “other” that legitimizes and normalizes the difference of treatments. The alienation of immigrant workers creates an environment of increased xenophobia, stigmatization, and racism – where regulation, policing, and intimidation of this group is generally accepted by the public (Choudry & Smith, 2016).

Overall, the work done by migrant labour in Canada is often deemed inferior, even when it is clearly not. Canadians would not be able to live without the food, health care, and essential services that are resultant from work done by migrant workers. The COVID-19 crisis has laid this reality bare to many Canadians. So, why are we still not treating them well? The Canadian government is often at the forefront when speaking against unfair and exploitative behaviours and human rights violations that other nations part-take in, so why are we trying to ignore it when it happens at home?

Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers

The COVID-19 situation has compounded these workers challenges. Being a migrant worker in Canada means being amongst those who are among the most exposed to COVID-19, and the least protected. In May and June of 2020, Canada witnessed a spike in COVID-19 cases among migrant workers. An outbreak among this vulnerable population should not have been a surprise given their substandard working and living conditions.

In Calgary, JBS meat plant and the Cargill meat plant are linked to more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19. The majority of the workers in those meat plants are immigrants and temporary foreign workers (Mosleh, 2020). Likewise, here in Ontario, there has been a growing number of COVID-19 cases among farmworkers. These outbreaks have resulted in the death of 3 workers, and more than 600 farm workers testing positive (Baum & Grant, 2020). Farmers who are responsible for employing temporary foreign workers in Ontario were called out by Premier Doug Ford for refusing to send workers for testing and resulting in a cluster of outbreaks in Southwestern Ontario. Ford indicated that despite the availability of testing centers and the farmers’ accessibility to mobile units to facilitate the assessment, less testing is being done for migrant workers when compared to the rest of the population (Baum & Grant, 2020).

There have been claims that migrant workers are reluctant to get tested (Baum & Grant, 2020), but that is quite perplexing given the fact that migrant workers are often at the mercy of exploitative employers. The real issue here is the existence of years of unfair practices and abuse that have enabled the businesses that employ these workers to continue exploitive tactics despite government recommendations and the current pandemic. In reality, the Canadian immigration and legal systems are filled with numerous flaws that have encouraged these practices. The TFWP and SAWP are employer-centric programs that benefit the monetary interests of business over the rights of migrant workers. The volatility of workers, further entrenched via Canadian laws and policy, also allows employers to abuse workers, starting from recruitment, through to unfair labour practices and the continuous threat of their deportation. Businesses have yet again shed a blind eye to government pleas and were not alarmed enough to start working to rectify the errors and have workers tested. This shows how deep-rooted and profound the problem in Canada is.

Canada has included food production as part of essential services during this pandemic. So much so, that the government placed an exemption on travel to enable migrant workers to come to Canada and work in the agricultural sector; gruelling and low-paid work that most Canadian citizens avoid. So why are these workers who perform essential work not regarded with dignity and provided with rights that appropriately mirror the magnitude of the labour they are supplying? At minimum, they ought to have secure living and working conditions that do not place them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Furthermore, and immediately (not only after the pandemic), the rights that these essential workers have been refused must be ultimately recognized and protected.

Immediate Responses and Sustainable Strategies

Echoing with Malleson’s (2014) call public powers and corporations should be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. Gaztambide-Fernández (2020) highlighted the importance of political solidarity for tackling such societal inequalities and discriminations. In the case of migrant workers, the government must demonstrate political and economic solidarity by ensuring the well-being of this group and taking the necessary actions in addressing the underlying issues and discriminations faced by this group. To address the current power imbalances amidst the existing urgency of the COVID-19, activist groups like Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (2020) and others are urging for the following recommendations to be implemented immediately.

Introduction of rigorous enforcement of employment standards: Mechanisms that permit anonymous complaints to prompt an inspection need to be revitalized. Improvement in the usage of proactive inspection procedures needs to be made. Additionally, it is essential to integrate worker and employer training into the inspection procedure, especially for workplaces that are known to breach standards frequently. Employers who are discovered to be in noncompliance with standards should be banned or temporarily refused from acquiring workers through the TFWP. Employers refusing to test and take appropriate measures to protect their workers need to be criminally charged because these conducts jeopardize the health of everyone in Canada.

Immigration Policies: Some migrant workers have been coming to Canada for decades; they have spent a good part of their lives contributing to this country. Their loyalty, dedication and hard work have helped Canada develop and alone should be enough to grant them citizenship status. Therefore, existing, and future workers coming to Canada need to be provided with a more distinguished residency status, which will allow them to have stability and enable them to gain permanent resident status in Canada.

Health and Safety: Improvements need to be made by employers to the accommodations in which workers live. Workers should not be cramped up in unlivable spaces where the risk of virus spread is intensified. Moreover, employers should also consider improving living arrangements beyond the pandemic. Hygiene products should be distributed, Wi-Fi and other channels of communication should be properly available to help workers deal with social distancing and isolation, and culturally and religiously suitable meal plans need to be provided. Employers must also provide sufficient Personal Protective Equipment to their workforce both at their workspaces and home settings to curb the spread of the virus. There ought to be brochures available to workers that provide proper guidelines on social distancing, and it should be written in languages that they understand to avoid communication barriers,

Currently, most farm workers lack privacy and autonomy and are subjected to extreme surveillance that restricts their mobility and ability to exercise their human rights. Therefore, these practices that are rooted in slavery should be abolished.

Equal and ready access to health services should be provided, especially during the pandemic to ensure workers are taken care of and possible outbreaks are eliminated. Similarly, the nature of work many migrants do is physical, and this could lead to life-threatening injuries. Therefore, their medical programs must match the difficult work they perform, and proper health benefits need to be provided during and beyond this pandemic.

Benefits: Employers should raise wages for essential migrant workers. There has to be a mechanism that ensures workers are provided with access to their labour rights, including employee compensation, which is devoid of exclusions and prohibitions.. Migrant workers are not permitted to obtain full Employment Insurance benefits, despite making similar contributions as Canadians. This must change. Migrant workers must gain full Employment Insurance benefits.

Settlement Support Services: Migrant workers coming through the TFWP do not qualify for federally sponsored settlement services. They should be provided with enough resources to adjust to their new lives in Canada; these resources should include health, legal, and cultural support programs.

Open Work Permits: Malleson (2014) and others arguing for more economic democracy underfscore that the current system of work is deeply unjust and suggest the concept of self-determination at work. Moving from restrictive work permits to open work permits would allow migrant workers to quit workplaces that indulge in unfair labour practices. Doing so will allow workers to have more autonomy and self-determination. It will also eliminate these oppressive policies and will force employers to improve strategies and human resource practices in order to retain their workforce (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, 2020).

Unionization: To confront all of these issues faced by migrants in an organized way, it is also essential we push for the incorporation of unions for this group. While some provinces like British Columbia have permitted migrant farmworkers to unionize, in provinces like Ontario struggles to allow migrant workers to unionize have ultimately been unsuccessful. Migrant workers should be able to unionize; unions possess the labour law knowledge and ability to act as lobbyist groups and campaigners to confront and influence the legislation and policies that support workers’ rights. They can also bargain for impartiality and equity and change the terms and conditions of contracts. Unions can also improve migrant workers' situations by allowing community actions and shed light on the plights of migrant workers. This will help to build a democratic workplace. What is vital today more than ever is a more robust and widely available foundation for labour rights and better labour legislation, which facilitates the formation of unions and for migrant activist group to build upon. Issues concerning migrant workers have to be confronted immediately; slow responses will lead to further normalization of exploitative practices making it difficult to abolish them easily. Unions can be at the forefront of these battles and help give migrant workers a stronger and more unified voice.

Other contacts for Samia Fereja:


Baum, K.B., & Grant, T. (2020, June 24). Ontario eases isolation rules to boost COVID-19 testing for migrant farm workers. The Globe and Mail.

Choudry, A., & Smith, A. A. (Eds.). (2016). Unfree Labour?: Struggles of Migrant and immigrant workers in Canada. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2020). What Is Solidarity? During Coronavirus and Always,

Malleson, T. (2014). After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century. Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

Mosleh, O. (2020, May 4). These meat plant workers came to Canada for a better life. Their kids worry they’ll be infected with COVID-19 at work. The Star.

Unheeded Warnings – COVID-19 & Migrant Workers in Canada. (2020, June 8). Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Sorio, C. (2020, May 11). From disposable to indispensable: providing foreign migrant workers with a pathway to permanent residency. Kairos Canada.

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