Incoherent, inhumane, insulting — that is how Wilner Cayo described the Canadian province of Quebec’s treatment of asylum seekers laboring in the health care sector during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocates estimate that hundreds of asylum seekers, many of whom arrived in Canada via the United States since 2017, are working in long-term care homes and elderly residences for low pay and at great personal risk.
In Quebec, the Canadian epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 80 percent of all deaths have been in these facilities.
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But asylum seekers do not have access to job training, such as a new provincial program to train 10,000 orderlies to work in long-term care homes — and advocates say their sacrifices on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis are going unrewarded.
“So these asylum seekers can work in [long-term care homes] now, in elderly residences now, they can carry this system on their backs, but when it comes to decent work conditions, it’s not for them,” said Cayo, a member of the group Stand Up for Dignity, at a rally in Montreal on June 6. “What world are we living in?”
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fact that thousands of immigrant workers — asylum seekers, refugees, temporary migrant workers and others — in both Canada and the U.S. are working in jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic.
From nurses and other health care professionals, to security guards and agricultural laborers, these workers are especially vulnerable given their immigration status — and as the pandemic continues to hit across North America, advocates are pushing for more protection, both in terms of workplace conditions and immigration status.
In Montreal, hundreds of people gathered in front of Justin Trudeau’s constituency office during the Stand Up for Dignity rally to call on the prime minister to grant frontline asylum seekers, many of whom are originally from Haiti, permanent residency.
Canada played a major role in sowing political instability in Haiti, which has fueled a mass exodus of citizens over the past two decades.
The Canadian government backed the February 2004 overthrow of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not long before the coup, it hosted the Ottawa Initiative on Haiti conference, during which Canadian, American, French and Organization of American States officials discussed the country’s future without any input from Haitians themselves.
These days, Canada and other Western powers continue to prop up Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s current president, despite mass protests against his rule and a worsening socioeconomic crisis that has forced Haitians of all classes to flee the country.
The protesters in Montreal broke out into chants of “Down with injustice!” and “Good enough to work, good enough to stay!” while many waved Haitian and Canadian flags, or held signs that read, “Migrants Matter.”
“It’s time to turn words into action,” Cayo said. “He (Trudeau) can regularize the status of the people he calls humanitarian workers.”
Immigrant Workers Are Disproportionately on Front Lines of COVID
Across the border in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic also has renewed the focus on the fact that several key sectors rely disproportionately on immigrant workers.
For example, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that immigrants — naturalized citizens, permanent residents, temporary workers, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and DACA recipients — accounted for almost 18 percent of 14.7 million health care workers in 2018.
“Immigrants have been disproportionately represented among health care workers even before the pandemic,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the institute specializing in immigration and the labour market. “COVID-19 put a big spotlight on the situation.”
Batalova explained that some immigrants come to the U.S. with medical backgrounds, while others, such as refugees — who may or may not have experience in medicine — go into health care professions that do not require additional study or licensing exams, such as nursing assistants.
Some also go into areas of the health care system where there is a large need for workers, such as home health aides, Batalova added.
“I think that what the crisis really revealed is that health care professionals, because they are on the frontlines … they are vulnerable both in terms of exposure to the virus but also long hours and difficult [working] conditions,” she said.
Those vulnerabilities also extend beyond the health care sector.
The Center for American Progress also recently found that more than 131,000 TPS holders from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti were employed in jobs that have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic, such as farm and food production workers, among others.
“There’s no question that immigrants are disproportionately on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “It’s raised a question of whether or not when people in this country are deemed essential, does that mean that we actually owe them a debt of gratitude that requires that we actually invest in preserving their health?”
He said immigrants’ justifiable fear — regardless of their immigration status — of Donald Trump’s administration has also deepened their anxiety around COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
People fear “it’s going to land them or their family members in detention or facing deportation, or seeing critical benefits, like the ability to apply for permanent residence, stripped from them,” Jawetz told Truthout. “The administration is reaping what it sowed, and by spreading fear over the past three-and-a half years, it can’t now turn to immigrant communities and ask them for complete trust.”
“We Are So Afraid to Talk”
Migrant workers without permanent status in Canada have also been hard-hit by the pandemic, and many live in fear of speaking out about their circumstances.
In the province of Ontario, two migrant farm workers — a 24-year-old from Mexico and a 31-year-old — died after contracting COVID-19, and dozens of others have tested positive at several farms and food production facilities. A third migrant worker died last week at an Ontario farm with over 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Justicia for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group, shared the testimony of a migrant working at an Ontario food production company that reported a COVID-19 outbreak: “We want a voice,” the worker said. “We are so afraid to talk. We are afraid we (will) get sent back home.”
Rights groups have pointed to overcrowded conditions on Canadian farms, as well as a lack of personal protective equipment and government oversight, for the outbreaks.
“The pandemic reveals the potentially deadly results of how Canada treats racialized people,” Justicia for Migrant Workers said in a recent statement. Canada has also contributed to rights abuses in South and Central America, where many of its migrant laborers come from; Canadian mining activities have had a destabilizing effect on many communities and in some cases, pushed residents to flee.
In Quebec, the government — which controls immigration into the province — initially shot down the idea of giving asylum seekers permanent residency, but it has since said it would examine the issue on a case-by-case basis. Justin Trudeau said last month that he would consider regularizing the status of some asylum seekers because “in an exceptional situation one can evidently consider some exceptions.” But to date, Canada has not committed to providing permanent residency to migrant workers or asylum seekers on the front lines during the COVID-19 crisis.