Hundreds of Trinidadian migrant workers have been issued open work permits to stay in Canada after they found themselves stuck here, unable to return home after the harvest season, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The seasonal workers had been denied Canadian employment insurance benefits because their original work permits were tied to specific farm operators, meaning they weren’t available to work for others — a criteria upon which Employment and Social Development Canada insists.
Without any government support from Ottawa and their homeland, the workers — estimated to be more than 400 in Ontario and Alberta — had relied on the help of sympathetic employers and supporters for shelter, and donated food and winter clothes. Many had never experienced a Canadian winter.
At the eleventh hour on Tuesday, just before they ran out of legal status as their initial closed work permits expired, the Canadian immigration department issued a public policy to let the stranded workers apply for an open work permit.
The new open permit not only allows them to work legally for any Canadian employer to support themselves, but it also helps them get access to health care and employment insurance while they are forced to remain in Canada.
“We will continue to do all that we can to support these workers until they can get home,” said Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, adding that the $155 work permit application fee has also been waived.
According to a government source, immigration officials are eager to get the workers home as soon as possible so they can spend the Christmas holidays with their loved ones during a year of hardship and uncertainty clouded by the global pandemic.
Migrant farm workers, who helped secure Canada’s food supply chain as essential workers during the crisis, faced the threats of exposure to the coronavirus due to their tight living quarters and work environment. There have been numerous outbreaks on farms and three COVID-19 deaths among the workers this year.
“We’re doing everything we can on our side to make that happen as we wait for the government of Trinidad and Tobago to allow them back into the country,” said the source.
Global Affairs Canada is still in negotiation with the Trinidad and Tobago government, which currently only allows a small number of their citizens to return every two weeks, the source said.
“We’re trying to find a workaround for this. In the meantime, we’re doing everything necessary to ensure the workers are taken care of while still in Canada,” he noted, adding that several departments are helping the workers access housing, jobs and services.
Advocates said the predicament of the Trinidadian farm workers has exposed the federal government’s patchwork approach to what they call “an archaic and outdated migration scheme.”