Pandemic Borders

How COVID-19 is redefining “working remotely” for Canada’s high-skilled foreign workers

For those who had a job offer and seemingly a bright future in Canada, travel has been halted until further notice. What can they do now?

Anna Triandafyllidou Lucia Nalbandian
12 August 2020
Air Canada aircraft at the Vancouver International Airport
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Picture by Liang Sen/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved
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There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic border closure has had a substantial impact on economies worldwide. However, stuck in limbo are foreigners who were meant to arrive in Canada for the purpose of contributing to the country’s economic growth. Canada, once facing a major backlog of immigration applications, has placed a hold on the processing of all applications until June 9, 2020. This has presented many challenges for employers in the country, and those who were otherwise on their way to begin a new life and new career in the country.

So, where does that leave Canada’s temporary foreign workers? While many low-skilled temporary foreign workers are still entering the country, and the Government has launched its controversial Agri-Food Pilot Program, many high-skilled temporary foreign workers that are deemed, suddenly, as non-essential, are left wondering about their options.

Canada’s high-skilled temporary foreign workers include knowledge-based, professional class and trades professions, who work in sectors that are still operating despite the lockdown. But there is very little clarity on what is deemed essential. Of course, the National Occupational Classification system is of little help, as it is not used in highlighting which foreign workers can enter the country.

The pandemic has brought a sudden and abrupt page in the priorities of the Canadian immigration system, prioritising those migrants employed in clearly ‘essential’ sectors such as agriculture or health and care, but leaving stranded those immigrant workers that the Government once deemed the most qualified and in-demand individuals in the labour market. Many of these individuals have sold their homes, quit their jobs, packed their bags and uprooted their families to come to Canada on work permits.

While many employers have invoked “work from home” policies, this is not a privilege that can be afforded to foreign workers. Employers, even if they wanted to, cannot have non-essential high-skilled foreign workers work remotely. Even with an employment approval letter, individuals who have yet to arrive in Canada, whose paperwork has already been processed, cannot receive their work permit unless they physically enter Canada. Without a work permit, the employer cannot process payment for work. Even if employers seek workarounds, there are severe consequences for organizations that do not respect labour laws.

Ahmet is an electrical engineer. He is a Turkish citizen and, up until 2016, used to teach at a University while simultaneously working for a private company in Istanbul. The University where he taught was closed by the Government in the summer of 2016, after the unsuccessful military coup against the Erdogan Government. Most faculty members, including Ahmet, were detained, their passports withheld, their office papers and books confiscated. After two years without a job – which he jokingly describes as a forced ‘sabbatical leave’ – with no pay and with no passport, he was offered a professorial fellowship in Stockholm. As soon as he got his passport back, he moved to Sweden with his spouse and child. While in Sweden, he applied for a University position in Canada and was offered the job. He submitted his paperwork in January, but its processing got stuck in the COVID-19 outbreak. He was meant to start on June 1st, but it does not look like his approval letter is coming any time soon. Ahmet and his family are one of the immigration victims of the pandemic. Fortunately, the University in Sweden has managed to extend his fellowship until the end of August and their landlady has yet to find a new tenant. Work permits though, are no longer being processed until June 9 and even the end of August seems unbelievably close. It is not only a matter of income – without a job in Sweden, they have no papers either.

Amanda is a recent PhD in Law, graduate from a well-known UK University. She has been top of her class throughout her studies and, during the last two years of her PhD work, she had taken up a job in her native Lagos, in Nigeria at an international think tank. During this time, she also got married. She successfully applied for a post-doctoral fellowship in Vancouver and was ready to start on May 1st. Her situation is even more complicated than that of Ahmet’s. Processing times for Nigeria are long and at this point, it is uncertain how long their papers will take to come through. The University in Vancouver has agreed to hold her fellowship until she manages to come, but the situation looks very uncertain. Her job at the think tank had, in the meantime, finished and she thought she was all set to go. Fortunately, her husband has not yet quit his sales manager position in a large Lagos firm and they can hold on for a few more months until they find out if Canada will be a tangible option in the coming months or they have to start the job hunting all over again.

So, what’s next? For individuals who had a job offer and seemingly a bright future in Canada in a highly skilled position, travel has been halted until further notice and there is no way to receive a work permit and start working remotely. Individuals in the process of applying for a work permit remain in limbo as all visa application centres – private companies that have formal contracts with the Government of Canada located around the world – have either temporarily closed or are operating with limited hours. Furthermore, individuals who have received a biometric instruction letter to give biometric information as part of their work permit application may face difficulty in doing so despite the extension of the required biometrics submission period from 30 to 90 days, as many of the offices are currently closed.

The Canadian innovative spirit cannot find an intermediate solution for these non-essential, high-skilled foreign workers with a job offer stuck in limbo

While extra caution in terms of international travel and self-quarantine appear legitimate measures, one wonders whether the Canadian innovative spirit cannot find an intermediate solution for these non-essential, high-skilled foreign workers with a job offer stuck in limbo, ready to leave from their countries but not able to enter Canada under these circumstances. An electronic provisional work permit and provisional Social Identification Number could be the solution until international travel normalizes. If the job can be done remotely for a short period (and many of these highly skilled jobs whether in engineering, IT, communication, management or education, can be done through telework), Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada could envisage a temporary remote work permit that would allow for employment to start remotely until the employee can enter Canada physically. Such arrangements could start with a three-month duration, renewable once and would automatically be ceased if international travel gradually normalizes, with a month’s notice in which the remote permit holder would be required to enter Canada and start their job ‘normally’ there. They would provide relief to the workers and families concerned, help the employers continue with their planning and help prevent Canada from losing some of the best international talent.

This article was originally published on First Policy Response, 10 June 2020

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