Justice for Immigrant Frontline Workers

It’s clear that some immigrant classes experience times of crisis differently than others in this country.

A survey from Statistics Canada, conducted between March 29 and April 3, 2020, showed the disparities. When it came to health-related concerns, 49 per cent of immigrants were “‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about their own health,” compared to 33 per cent of Canadian-born individuals. Meanwhile 69 per cent of immigrants were concerned about the health of “other household members,” compared to just 50 per cent of non-immigrants. Immigrants were also more likely to feel the crisis would have a “major” or “moderate” impact on their finances, at a rate of 36 per cent, versus 27 for non-immigrants. This is significant since socio-economic status is a major determinant of health.

Based on the data from previous economic downturns, we know that various refugee classes have experienced periods of economic instability in different ways. Between the years 2005 and 2014, government assisted refugees (GARs) have consistently fared the worst compared to other immigrant classes. Privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) also experienced considerable economic losses during the 2008-2009 recession and continue to fall below refugee claimants in more recent years.

Migrant workers and refugee claimants play an essential role in Canada’s employment landscape.

With this in mind, it makes sense that the current global pandemic would exacerbate the existing issues at the intersections of immigration status, class, and race. Fariborz Birjandian, CEO at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, notes that PSRs and GARs have been able to benefit from some of the social and financial supports that have been available during this time. Many refugee claimants, however, have been left in a place of particular precarity due to a combination of social and economic factors brought on by COVID-19.

First, there are those refugee claimants who’ve been unable to get to Canada as a result of new restrictions. Since March 20, 2020, the Canada-U.S. border has been closed to non-essential travel. Despite the urgent, essential nature of seeking asylum, an untold number of refugee claimants have been barred access to Canada’s refugee process, conflating existing restrictions caused by the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement along our land borders.

But during the present crisis, we have also seen that many frontline workers in long term care homes are among those in Canada with “precarious” immigration status. This includes many refugee claimants who are serving alongside temporary foreign workers in essential industries, including farm work and healthcare, notably in parts of Quebec. In High River, just south of Calgary, it’s well-known that many immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and refugees were among those employees most significantly affected by a COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill Meat plant. This was the largest outbreak in Canada to date, with over 949 workers infected and over 1,500 cases linked to the plant.

So many racialized and newcomer communities face disproportionate risks of contracting COVID-19. This is why immigration advocates in Montreal took to the streets in Prime Minister Trudeau’s riding of Papineau this spring. They demanded that the federal and provincial governments grant permanent residence to those working on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19 These protesters believe it to be unjust that foreign workers continue to put their lives at risk in service to Canadians without the security that comes with permanent residence. Many across Canada have similarly begun to insist on fair, livable wages for all frontline workers. The pandemic has illuminated the essential roles that so many play in our economy, be they grocery store clerks or long-term care nurses.

Migrant workers and refugee claimants play an essential role in Canada’s employment landscape. Should the present border restrictions continue late into the summer, there are bound to be significant impacts on the agricultural sector and Canada’s food supply. If refugees and migrant workers are barred entry to Canada, it will certainly mean labour shortages across an industry so dependent on underpaid seasonal workers. Meanwhile refugees unable to access Canada’s asylum system continue to face very dire and urgent risks.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government should take note of the fundamental role that foreign workers, including refugees, play in our food and health care systems. Beyond being the backbone for the economy, migrant workers and refugees deserve to have their rights and safety upheld both on and off the job. By opening the border to allow refugee claimants access to protection, granting a pathway to citizenship for the migrant workers that keep us healthy and fed, and by ensuring that these workers receive fair wages and safe working conditions, the federal government would be doing a noble thing for migrant workers both during and after this pandemic


  • Deborah Mebude is CPJ's interim Communications Coordinator.

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