Nearly half of migrant workers won't qualify for new federal residency program: survey

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Close to 50 per cent of migrant workers in Canada won’t qualify for a new federal program that could grant them permanent status, according to a new survey by a migrants’ advocate group.

Of 3,000 participants in the survey, conducted by the Migrant Rights Network, 45.4 per cent of migrant workers said they would be excluded from the program due to the requirements imposed by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The results come two days before the federal government opens applications for a new temporary program that would allow as many as 90,000 foreign workers and international graduates with temporary status and working in industries deemed essential —  including skilled tradespeople and farm and health-care workers — to get permanent status in Canada.

Some of the biggest barriers identified by many workers — including agricultural workers who come each year to farms across Southwestern Ontario — are the English requirement imposed by the government as well as the high cost of the application.

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“Many of us can speak, comprehend and are getting by perfectly fine in English . . . but writing and reading are difficult for many of us,” said Gary, a migrant worker on Ontario farms since 2013, during a virtual event on Tuesday.

“We came here to work as farmworkers and we were not required to have a high level of English or pass a test before we came . . . Why do we now need to do a test?”

The cost of the English test is about $300, which is high for workers making minimum wage and who also send large portions of their wages to sustain their families back home, Gary said.

On top of that, applicants also need to cover the costs of submitting the application, translating documents to English, payment for the necessary medical exams and any legal help, Gary said.

In addition, workers must have at least one year of experience working in Canada in job fields designated by the government, be in Canada at the time of applying and be employed.

All combined, the requirements become barriers for many low-wage workers who have spent years in Canada doing work Canadians won’t and under poor conditions, said Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance.

“The federal government has created a short-term program for just a few people,” he said.

“We need to turn the tide toward equality and fairness, so that everyone in the country is able to access labour and is able to get health care, is able to take care of their families.”

Mia Loebach, a London-based immigration consultant, said the federal initiative is an improvement over existing programs.

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“It’s a step up for essential workers, especially considering they didn’t have very many permanent resident options before as it is,” she said.

But Loebach said she agreed some of the requirements can become big barriers for some of these workers, many of whom have contributed to the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It would be nice to see the essential worker policy expanded to people who are in Canada already and who are refused refugee claimants or are in the refugee claim process,” she said.

“It doesn’t cover all the people who have been working in the grocery stores, who’ve been working in supply-chain management, and even in some of the occupations in the hospitals and health-care system, but because it’s not direct patient care, they don’t qualify.

“It’s important to recognize those individuals as well,” Loebach said.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, however, defended the program, calling it “among the most inclusive and innovative programs ever launched” by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“Its size, speed and scope are unprecedented,” he said in an emailed statement.

“From bricklayers to bus drivers to custodians, the range of eligible occupations has never been more inclusive . . . These bold initiatives represent a paradigm shift in our immigration system, one that is more inclusive than ever before. We will continue to blaze new trails to welcome more newcomers because we know that immigration is key to Canada’s economic recovery and long-term prosperity.”

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