British Columbia

Advocacy group says undocumented migrants need access to government benefits

A section of Canada's workforce is being overlooked as the federal government expands subsidies for workers affected by COVID-19, a rights group says.

No federal relief funding without a social insurance number

Migrant workers from Mexico maintain social distancing as they wait to be transported to Quebec farms after arriving at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on Tuesday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

A section of Canada's workforce is being overlooked as the federal government expands subsidies for workers affected by COVID-19, a rights group says.

The Migrant Rights Network called on the federal government Thursday to issue individual tax numbers to undocumented migrant workers, allowing them to access subsidies like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.

The group is also asking the government to reinstate the expired social insurance numbers of migrant workers so they can also access the benefit.

"One missed paycheque significantly alters the rest of your life," said Syed Hussain, the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a member organization of the Migrants Right Network.

"I've never seen anything this bad. We're dealing with abject despair and complete disillusion."

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Access to government subsidies would mean the difference between a home and living on the streets, undocumented workers say.

'Too much stress'

Laura Lopez, an undocumented construction worker in Vancouver, said while she is at home caring for her two young children, work has dried up for her husband.

"It's too much stress for us," Lopez said. "It's really scary for us that we might not be able to pay rent in May."

Neither she nor her husband have a social insurance number (SIN) — meaning they can't apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or the Canada Child Benefit.

Undocumented workers make up a quiet part of the Canadian workforce.

From construction labourers to house cleaners, they are often paid in cash and can face discrimination from other workers over their undocumented status, the groups say.

The Canadian Border Services Agency said it is not going through with deportations because of the pandemic.

Temporary foreign worker Gustavo Antonio's annual travel to B.C. has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Migrant Rights Network)

Some migrant workers who do have SIN numbers are also affected.

Gustavo Antonio has been working on orchards in B.C.'s Okanagan region at for nearly two decades.

Speaking through an interpreter he said his travel to British Columbia this year is held up because of the pandemic and he's stuck in Mexico without work.

"I have worked in Canada for 17 years which leaves me to believe I have the right to access financial aid."

'They don't understand the scope or scale of this'

Despite sending letters to the government, Hussain said the group's concerns aren't being taken seriously.

The federal government announced $50 million in funding to ensure temporary foreign workers complied with COVID-19 screening earlier this month, along with the ability to apply for employment insurance and the emergency benefits.

But that doesn't help some workers already here, Hussain said.

"The complete lack of the federal government sitting down with us is part of the problem," he said.

"They don't know how to solve this problem. They don't understand the scope or scale of this."

A 2007 survey by the RCMP tallied the undocumented migrant community at 500,000, an estimate Hussain said is much higher now.

Even if the federal government isn't able to provide immediate relief, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees said there's an easy solution to help some of those affected workers.

"There are a lot of people who have medical training, but because they are qualified outside of Canada they're not allowed to contribute," said Janet Dench.

"We're depriving ourselves of the contributions some people would be able to make if we were more open minded."

With files from Brady Strachan


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