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COVID-19 amplifies existing challenges for undocumented workers, experts say

The authors of a new report on undocumented workers in Alberta say the COVID-19 pandemic means more challenges for an already vulnerable group.

'Having a group of people who cannot access healthcare when they need it is bordering on tragic'

Marco Luciano, director of Migrante Alberta, is one of the authors of a new report on challenges faced by undocumented workers in Alberta. (CBC)

The authors of a new report on undocumented workers in Alberta say the COVID-19 pandemic means more challenges for an already vulnerable group.

The report, In the Shadows: Living and Working Without Status in Alberta, which was released this week by the Parkland Institute, is based on interviews with 32 undocumented workers living in northern Alberta. The interviews were conducted in 2017.

Many workers came to Canada from countries including the Philippines and Mexico with work permits under the Temporary Foreign Work Program, but could not renew their permits due to federal policy changes and the 2015 economic downturn in Alberta, the report says.

Though the report highlights challenges that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, its authors say those challenges have now become a humanitarian crisis.

"These workers, like thousands of other workers in Alberta, have lost their jobs," said Jason Foster, an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University and a co-author of the report.

"Unlike other workers, they have no access to any of the support programs that governments have put in place."

Undocumented workers are not eligible for the federal government's emergency response benefit or unemployment insurance.

Access to health care — of heightened importance during a pandemic — is another challenge.

According to the report, because undocumented workers do not have valid health-care cards, they do not seek treatment for minor conditions and if they visit emergency rooms for major problems, they face large bills.

"In a time of a pandemic, having a group of people who cannot access health care when they need it is bordering on tragic," Foster said.

Why stay without status?

Many workers who lose their status return to their home countries, the report says, but those who stay overwhelmingly say they do so to help family, either by sending money back home or supporting their children born in Canada.

Often, the economic realities remain starker in their home countries, said report co-author Marco Luciano, who directs the workers' rights group Migrante Alberta.

The number of undocumented workers in Canada is not known, but the report says community advocates estimate the population in Alberta is in the thousands, as high as 20,000.

Among the report's 27 recommendations to governments are creating a one-time window for access to permanent residency for all migrant workers in Canada and providing medically-necessary insured services free of charge to all Alberta residents, regardless of residency.

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