Y.Y. Brandon Chen (University of Ottawa), Julia Chung (University of Ottawa) & Hannah Duhme (University of Ottawa)

This post is the third in a series of blog posts on COVID-19 and inequalities from a multidisciplinary and international perspective. A work-in-progress symposium on 9-10 June 2021 on the forthcoming edited collection tentatively titled as above is under contract with Bristol University Press sits within the Bristol Studies in Law and Social Justice Series.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Canada has affected racialized migrant populations disproportionately. Like many high-income countries, Canada depends heavily on migrant workers to perform essential services, including inside health and long-term care facilities, on the farms, and in food-processing plants. While attending to such essential work during the pandemic increases migrant workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19, government policies have largely fallen short of what is required to mitigate these risks.

Inadequate Protection of Migrant Agricultural Workers

The serious impact of the current pandemic on migrant workers in Canada is particularly evident in the agri-food industry. In 2020, nearly 1,800—or 12 percent of—migrant farm workers in the Province of Ontario contracted COVID-19. Three of them died. Today, outbreaks in Ontario’s agri-food sector remain a regular occurrence, underscoring the deficiency of government policies.

Since March 2020, both Canada and Ontario have invested considerable resources to help farm operators and food processors adhere to public health guidelines, including acquiring personal protective equipment, redesigning workstations to enable physical distancing, and supporting migrant workers’ quarantine upon arrival in Canada. However, there has been limited effort to ensure the transparency and accountability of how employers spend the government grants. Indeed, months after the initial launch of these funding programs, complaints about crowded working and living spaces on Ontario’s farms persist.

Although workplace inspections have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, their effectiveness in safeguarding agriculture health and safety is mixed at best. At present, Canada’s federal government is conducting most inspections virtually. This raises concerns about whether videos or photographs supplied by employers truly reflect the lived realities of migrant agricultural workers.

To the extent that virtual inspections involve interviews with employees, migrant agricultural workers’ precarious legal status often deters them from reporting unsafe working or living conditions. These migrants’ ability to remain in Canada and to return in future years to work typically depends on keeping their present employers’ favour. Speaking out against employers therefore requires migrant agricultural workers to bear significant personal and financial risks.

Access Barriers to COVID-19 Testing and Vaccination

Despite migrant workers’ vulnerability to COVID-19 infection, some have encountered roadblocks when accessing related healthcare services. In Nova Scotia, for example, migrant workers without government health insurance have been turned away from COVID-19 testing. In Ontario, although the government has announced that proof of provincial health insurance coverage is not required to receive COVID-19 tests, some undocumented migrant workers have refrained from testing for fear of being deported from the country.

Similar barriers have been observed when undocumented migrant workers seek to obtain COVID-19 vaccines. Without provincial health insurance, undocumented migrants in Ontario must book their COVID-19 vaccine appointments through a call centre instead of online. The wait to speak to a call centre representative can be long, and services are delivered in English or French only. Some undocumented migrants have also been denied vaccine appointments by call centre agents, contrary to government assurance that vaccines would be available to all residents irrespective of legal status.

Inadequate Income Protection Measures

In the unfortunate event that workers contract COVID-19 or come in contact with an infected person, having adequate income protection is vital to public health. Such income assistance allows affected workers to take time off to get tested and self-isolate, without needing to worry about how to pay their living expenses.

However, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) introduced by the Canadian government in the wake of the current pandemic is insufficient to meet the income protection needs of migrant workers affected by COVID-19. Entitlement to the CRSB is restricted to migrant workers with a valid Social Insurance Number, thus excluding workers who are undocumented, as well as those in the process of renewing their expired work permits. The requirement that a CRSB beneficiary earned at least $5,000 in the previous twelve months further rules out many migrant workers who arrived in Canada recently.

Even when migrant workers do qualify for the CRSB, the application process demands a level of digital literacy that not all of them have. Also, the amount of the benefit falls below the minimum wage in many parts of Canada, and it can take some time to arrive, which poses a challenge for workers living from paycheque to paycheque. Although some provinces have in recent months introduced their own paid sick leave programs, these programs are generally designed to dovetail with the CRSB, and the effectiveness of such a patchwork approach remains to be seen.

In sum, Canada’s COVID-19 responses have largely failed to ensure migrant workers’ safety and wellbeing. Given how deeply enmeshed migrant workers are in Canada’s social and economic fabric, Canada stands little chance of achieving “COVID zero” if it maintains the status quo. Urgent actions are needed to remedy migrant workers’ precarious legal status and the attendant public health consequences.