Trinidadian farm workers stranded in Canada seeking support, trying to find a way home

Concerns about COVID-19 have left more than 100 migrant farm workers from Trinidad and Tobago stuck in Ontario, far from their families and unsure of when they'll be able to return home.

'It's really hard on a lot of people ... they're alone, they're away from their families'

Migrant farm workers in Abbotsford, BC are shown in this file photo from September 2019. More than 100 workers from Trinidad and Tobago are stranded in Ontario because of travel restrictions. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Sidique Ali-Hosein had to appeal to his government in Trinidad and Tobago for permission to come to Canada this year — now he's among more than 100 migrant farm workers trying to find a way to go home.

The Caribbean country's border has been closed since March because of COVID-19, and Canada's rising case numbers have officials reluctant to let workers return.

It's a situation that's left farm workers in limbo after labouring through the pandemic. And, as the holidays approach, they're unsure of whether they'll be able to leave or how they'll support themselves while stranded far from their loved ones.

"As bad as it is with COVID and everything, you're still looking forward to spending that time with your siblings and extended family and having that special time. You know, that Christmas spirit," explained Ali-Hosein, who has worked in Canada for seven seasons.

"It was a huge sacrifice for everybody to leave their family and ... come over here and work to get an income to go back. It was kind of heart wrenching."

Ali-Hosein works at Schuyler Farms near Simcoe, alongside roughly 100 other people from Trinidad and Tobago.

Farmer Brett Schuyler said that as of Thursday, only two of those workers have been allowed home.

A repatriation flight scheduled for Dec.12 will carry one person from his farm.

Workers applying for EI

Schuyler said he's been told more flights will be scheduled as quarantine spaces become available in Trinidad and Tobago, but in the meantime, workers are beginning to worry.

Their work permits and visas are set to expire on Dec. 15, though Schuyler says he's working with Canadian officials to ensure they're extended and is "90 per cent confident that that's all going to happen."

Still, there's concern about what it would mean for the workers to be without status, especially when it comes to applying for employment insurance (EI).

Schuyler said the farm is helping workers sign up, and some have been successful, while others have been turned down.

Brett Schuyler employs about 100 workers from Trinidad but says only two have managed to make it home so far. (Norm Arnold/CBC)

Most of the money workers earn is sent back to their families, said Kenneth Sookdeo, who also works at Schuyler Farms So they need something to live on now that work on the farm has slowed down.

"It's just whatever little that we have in savings. That is what we are using right now to buy our groceries," he said.

Sookdeo said he's among those who was denied EI. He's filed a letter asking for the decision to be reconsidered.

The situation is sad, he said.

"We understand it is a pandemic, but ... every worker has families and needs to go see them."

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, previously estimated the number of workers from Trinidad and Tobago who are stuck in Ontario is likely "hundreds," although an exact figure is difficult to nail down.

"These workers don't have access to income supports. Many of them have to either pay rent, or for food, while they're stuck here, and the federal government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that they get their rights and benefits," he said.

EI will be critical for supporting the worker during their stay, said Schuyler, pointing out that migrant farm workers have been paying into the program for decades.

"There is an argument to be able to use that program and help these guys get through the winter."

Employment and Social Development Canada told CBC it's working with other federal agencies and consular officials to get the workers home to Trinidad and Tobago as soon as possible.

That effort includes ensuring access to the housing and income supports they're entitled to, spokesperson Isabelle Maheu said in an email on Nov. 30.

"If necessary, the government can consider options on allowing the workers to apply to extend their immigration status, be covered by health care and other services and, if required, get access to various support while they remain in Canada."

Emails and phone messages to Trinidad and Tobago's labour consul in Canada and the country's labour ministry went unanswered Thursday.

Trying to keep spirits up

Schuyler said his bunkhouses are winterized, and he's not charging the workers rent.

The community in Norfolk has also stepped up with donations of food and warm clothing, he said.

The farm hasn't housed people over the winter before, so they're figuring out how reliable heating systems in the houses are and buying space heaters for workers who aren't used to the cold.

"There'll be a big heating bill ... but I'm not going to complain about that part. It does suck, but so does your country not letting you fly home," he said, adding he's doing everything he can to keep people's spirits up.

Ali-Hosein said some workers are welcoming the chance to stay in Canada, while others are missing their families.

With so much unknown and no clear dates for when they'll be able to fly out, the situation is stressful "emotionally and mentally," he said.

"It's really hard on a lot of people, being it's Christmas time, they're alone, they're away from their family. But I think we are taking comfort within each other."