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Ottawa Axes EI Benefits for Migrant Workers

Workers pay in but can’t cash out

by Alexa Keeler

Junior Sylvester of Trinidad & Tobago is a 12-year veteran worker employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. He thinks of himself as an honorary citizen. The 48-year-old father of six works long hours picking apples in Ontario when they are in season – tobacco in the off-season – for minimum wage. He pays his taxes, contributing to Canada’s social safety net programs in spite of the struggle it was to get to Canada in the first place, and the often dangerous living and working conditions therein.

When Sylvester’s youngest son, Hasani, was born on Christmas Eve in 2009, he was grateful to have received $377 in monthly support while on parental leave, allowing him to purchase diapers, clothing and supplies when the need was paramount. The federal government’s recent decision to exclude migrant workers, like Sylvester, from special Employment Insurance (EI) benefits will have a drastic effect on how these families will make ends meet.

These special EI benefits include parental, maternal and compassionate (caring for terminal relatives) benefits. While seasonal migrant workers were always ineligible to collect full EI allowance, they were able to access these special benefits, even during the off-season. As of Dec. 9, this is no longer the case, despite the fact that migrant workers are expected to continue paying into this fund.

On Dec. 6, Minister of Human Resources and Skills and Development Diane Finley dealt migrant workers another tough blow by eliminating special Employment Insurance benefits for those employed under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“All of us are still paying into Canada’s EI system, but we are not allowed to collect any of the benefit we help contribute to,” Sylvester told the Toronto Star. “Canadian workers can access the special benefits and spend time with their children, but how about our children back home?”

After introducing regulations that decreased migrant workers’ minimum wage by 15 per cent earlier last year, migrant worker advocates were appalled to discover Ottawa is attacking these vulnerable workers once more by stripping their rights to EI benefits.

The federal government expects to save an annual $18 million by cutting benefits from 1,900 temporary migrant workers who the government claims are no longer eligible to remain in Canada.

Government officials explained that even regular EI benefits typically end once the applicant has left the country, so the issue is not so much one of people abusing the system, but rather a matter of program integrity.

Marian Ngo, spokeswoman for Diane Finley told PostMedia News, “Our government is intent on making sure the EI program remains fair and consistent. The intention of the EI program is to help transition individuals back into the Canadian labor force, so it makes sense that only those who are authorized to be in Canada should be eligible for EI benefits.”

Critics of this decision say that it is not fair because these are often seasonal workers who have contributed to the system, have worked the required number of hours to qualify for benefits, and who are in most cases planning a return to Canada on a new work permit the following season.

“These are workers who have a long term attachment to Canada,” Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia for Migrant Workers (JMW), a workers’ advocacy group told Postmedia News.

“These are the workers who are working eight months of the year and go home for three or four months, and that’s where they use the money to take care of family members back home and then they would return the following year,” he continued.

Some Canadians complain of the influx of migrant workers, but according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada receives approximately 180,000 temporary migrant workers in a single year to fill labour shortages in occupations that Canadian citizens apparently do not want.

Migrant workers often undertake some of the most grueling and hazardous jobs offered in Canada, doling out a portion of their hard-earned cash – an estimated $3.4 million annually – to social protection programs like Canada’s EI system. These workers only gained access to EI in 2002, and even then, only a small quantity of migrant workers were given access.

According to Sylvester, “The elimination of these special benefits violates the nature of the Employment Insurance Act that was put into place to protect our families and our children from falling into poverty.”

At a JMW meeting organized in Windsor on October 21st, Ramsaroop told the Toronto Star that migrant workers were “shocked and angry” about the amendment. He went on to explain that as a result of this change, 30,000 migrant workers employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program can no longer take leave from work and collect a fraction of wages while caring for a newborn or a sick child.

“They felt they were being treated like second-class citizens. This is the money some of them were depending on when they can’t work because they have to stay home and look after an ailing child,” continued Ramsaroop.

The federal government’s defense was that the old practice was “inconsistent” with the point of EI, which is to help individuals transition back into the job market.

Adriana Paz Ramirez, an organizer for JMW, told the Toronto Star, “For over 40 years, migrant workers have been subsidizing Canada’s EI fund yet have been ineligible to receive full benefits, and now they are being completely stripped away from the few special benefits they were able to access.”

Advocates for migrant workers are merely requesting a restoration of the special benefits. Paz Ramirez argues that “the fight right now should be to restore this benefit and to fully include migrant workers into social protection programs rather than eliminating access and reinforcing a system that perpetuates exclusion and marginalization of migrant workers.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 5, No. 4.

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