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Undocumented workers in Canada: ‘If the virus doesn’t kill us, hunger will’

Marites N. Sison

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Undocumented workers in Canada: ‘If the virus doesn’t kill us, hunger will’


Migrant, undocumented workers seek income support from the Canadian government during the coronavirus pandemic 

TORONTO, Canada – An undocumented Filipino worker was among those who urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to extend his government’s COVID-19 income support to people without Social Insurance Numbers (SIN) in Canada. 

Danilo Lee, a former Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) who lives in Edmonton, said that undocumented residents and migrant workers have contributed to Canada’s economy and “should not be left behind.” Lee spoke during an online press conference on  Thursday, April 16, organized by the Migrant Rights Network, a national coalition of about 40 migrant-led organizations across Canada. 

Syed Hussan, Executive Director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said he has worked for many years with marginalized sectors and has not seen “the incredible depth of despair, suffering and looming calamity that I’m seeing in our communities right now” because of the impact of COVID-19. 

“Our phones don’t stop ringing, and each story is worse than the other,” he said, citing the case of a single mother who has been undocumented for 19 years and is worried about food running out for her child who suffers from a brain injury.

For a month now, said Hussan, the Migrant Rights Network has been urging the Trudeau government to provide Individual Tax Numbers to residents without SIN so they can have access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) without their information being shared with immigration authorities. (READ: Canadian lawmakers approve vast pandemic economic program)

Providing income support is not only a case of morality and fairness, it is “a public health imperative,” said Hussan.

“In a public health crisis, unless we protect everyone, we cannot protect anyone. To leave over a million people without income support makes it impossible to flatten the curve for anyone.” (So far, over 1,200 Canadians have died of COVID-19; nearly 30,000 have been infected with the virus.) 

Constant worry

The are about 1.8 million migrant and undocumented residents in Canada, many of whom have been deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic – care workers for children, the sick and the elderly; seasonal agricultural workers, warehouse workers, food delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and cleaners. 

“They deserve to stay home if they are sick, and they deserve income if they have lost work or have had hours of work reduced,” the Migrant Workers Network said in a letter to Trudeau.

Lee, who spoke out on behalf of other undocumented workers, said the pandemic has “made it harder for me and for people like me,” who constantly worry about being exposed to COVID-19, not having access to health care, working reduced hours, and losing their jobs. 

Lee said he deserves to get some income support during the pandemic because he diligently paid his taxes during his time as a Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) from 2009 to 2017.

“I’m not asking for a handout. I’ve been a good Albertan. I volunteer in different organizations to help my community,” he added. “I want to prove that I belong here. I’m not a criminal.” He said that even now, as an undocumented worker, he paid taxes through his rent and purchase of basic needs. 

Lee recounted his experience of coming to Canada in 2009 under the TFW program and of his unsuccessful attempt to apply for permanent resident status and a renewal of his work permit. His applications were denied despite the fact that he had an Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program certificate and despite having worked for 8 years in Canada. 

“I was told by my lawyer that the (immigration) officer was not convinced. I didn’t know what that meant,” said Lee. His voice breaking, Lee said he had spent thousands of dollars trying other paths to become a permanent resident, but these were met with refusal and notices of removal. 

“It was a hard decision to stay (without status), but I wanted to make sure that my daughters have something to live on. I have no future back home,” said Lee. He has lived undocumented 3 years now and has not seen his family in the last 7 years. 


Meanwhile, Julie Diesta, a member of the Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, said her organization has been asking the Trudeau government to extend the work permits of care workers during the pandemic. 

Her organizations has been flooded with phonecalls from careworkers whose work permits are about to expire. “They are worried because if their work permits expire, their SIN and medical services also expire,” she said. With permits being processed longer than usual, careworkers run the risk of being jobless, yet being unable to access the CERB.

On the other hand, while those who are laid off can apply for income support, being jobless could affect their chances of completing 24 months of work within a set period of time, one of the requirements when care workers apply for permanent resident status under a new federal program. 

Diesta cited the case of a careworker who was set to complete the two-year work requirement in June, but was laid off March 26. “She has to get all the requirements, but everything is on hold. She has to look for another job,” she said. But finding another job quickly won’t be easy. An employer would have to pay $1,000 to apply for a Labour Market Impact Assessment, which takes months to process, and stand to pay an additional $1,500 if they were to go through an agency. “No employer would pay that amount at this time,” said Diesta.

Diesta said her organization has advised care workers who had been laid off to remain in Canada “because their work permits allow them to still be here.”  Through the advocacy of migrant workers groups, she said even temporary workers are now able to access food banks. 

Other concerns during the pandemic include not being able to leave abusive employers because of the risk of homelessness and not finding alternative employment during a tough economic time, she said.

Meanwhile, Hussan said that while there has been a temporary moratorium on deportation during the pandemic, many undocumented residents are on the edge since police and other enforcement officers have been granted additional powers to surveil and ID people. Stopping people on the streets are often “specific to racialized people,” he said. 

Some employers have also taken advantage of additional policing by threatening to report workers who assert their rights. 

Meanwhile, in its letter to Trudeau, the Migrant Rights Network said income support must also be extended to seasonal migrant workers, whose work have been delayed due to border closures or because they have chosen not to come for health and safety reasons during the pandemic. 

Among them is Gustavo Antonio, a farm worker from Mexico, who has been unable to travel to Canada despite having a contract and work permit. Antonio, who dialed in from Vera Cruz, said he has been unble to pay his bills and support his family since his income is solely in Canada. He has worked as a TFW for 17 years, and pays his taxes during the 6-8 months that he works in Canada. 

Migrant workers from China and other parts of Mexico also shared their concerns. Liliana Trejo, an undocumented single mother who recently lost her job as a temp worker in Montreal,  spoke through a translator, lamenting how “no one is talking about undocumented women.” 

Trejo says the impact of COVID-19 on undocumented women has been serious. “The level of stress, anxiety and fear we are living is intolerable, even worse than ever,” she said. “Who’s going to pay my rent and provide our basic needs? How am I supposed to support my daughter who has now fallen into deep depression?”

Expressing her frustration, she added,  “We are invisible, and no one – not the government, not society, wants to see us. If the virus doesn’t kill us, hunger will.” –

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