“In a country like Canada, no one should be forgotten”. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau made these remarks on 29 March as he announced the passage of extraordinary budgetary policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new budget clearly aims to consider the needs of all Canadians. This includes those who have been laid off from their jobs, the young and the old, and those who need additional healthcare support in shelters and hospitals. Still, some of the most vulnerable members of our communities have been left out. They have not only been left out of the budget but they have also been left out in terms of vital access to healthcare.
These left-out people are the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) who keep our local grocery stores running, our farms fruitful, and our children and seniors well cared for. These are the very same people who are now tending to the needs of Canadians in care facilities and who are providing services in essential businesses. An average of about 330,000 TFWs per year come to Canada.
TFWs are given short-term work visas of around 3-6 months to work in industries experiencing labour shortages and must leave Canada upon expiration of their visas. The agricultural workers who, for example, work on Canadian farms and orchards during the spring and summer harvest season must return to their home countries upon completion of this contract. The same holds true for those who work as temporary live-in-caregivers.
Unfortunately, while citizens can turn to family, friends and the government, during the Covid-19 pandemic, TFWs must bear the financial costs of the crisis on their own. These workers have left their families behind and therefore have a far more limited support network while in Canada. Although, like other Canadians, TFWs pay taxes and contribute to the Employment Insurance (EI), they cannot take advantage of these benefits. They are not entitled to draw on EI benefits if they are laid off or if they fall ill. The TFW is not included in the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 a month for those who have lost their job due to the pandemic.
Those who keep our local grocery stores running, our farms fruitful, and our children and seniors well cared for are being left out of budget and access to healthcare
To make matters worse, most often, these workers are also ineligible for Canadian healthcare services. This includes access to neighborhood clinics, hospitals, and mental health centers. Each year, British Columbia, for example, hosts a total of approximately 30,000 TFWs, or less than 1% of B.C.’s population. A TFW must have a valid 6-month work visa in order to be eligible for B.C. healthcare benefits. But this eligibility only kicks in 3 months into the 6-month work visa. This means that, if they fall ill, TFWs who arrived less than three months ago or those whose visas are valid for less than six months will not be eligible for Canadian healthcare services in B.C. Similar rules apply across most Canadian provinces and territories.
The TFW program is supposed to be mutually beneficial. Employers access an abundance of lower cost labour. Workers gain Canadian work experience and better wages than they would at home. However, at times like these, it is vital to remember that we have invited workers, and that the people who live alongside us in our neighborhoods and in our cities are not just workers but are also human beings.
The Covid-19 virus does not care about Canadian residency status. As the Prime Minister invites Canadians to come together as one people, we must ensure that TFWs also have access to emergency financial plans and to healthcare benefits. Politicians and policy-makers need to remember not only those who are already here but also those who will soon be arriving. This includes, for example, the 8,000 plus people who are expected to arrive over the next few months to work on farms in B.C.
Indeed, in a country like Canada, no one should be forgotten. This includes the hardworking people who are and will be here on a temporary basis.