Migrant Workers are Organizing, and Winning

Over one hundred thousand people, many of them low-waged and racialized workers, faced a crisis atop a crisis in 2020. They were on time-restricted work permits that range from eight months to three years. To qualify for permanent residency, they had to complete a minimum of one year of high-waged work—all before their permits expired. Such jobs are difficult to secure even in the best of circumstances, and almost impossible during COVID-19.

To add to these crises, their work permits are non-renewable, which means they can only get one in their lifetime. Workers were being punished for a pandemic that was not in their control, and every day that passed left them deeper and deeper in crisis.

A campaign began in earnest, led by migrant student workers themselves. We pushed for changes to unfair immigration rules that would stop the deportation of tens of thousands of migrant workers.

Within a year, we won.

Here’s what happened.

In March 2020, as COVID-19 was hitting our communities hard, Migrant Students United (MSU) organized online information sessions for current and former international students. In March alone, we connected with over 3,500 migrant student workers who joined in and voiced concerns. Based on these meetings, MSU sent a letter to the federal government in April and launched a petition calling for healthcare, income support, and immigration changes. Over 12,000 people signed on.

From coast to coast, MSU held weekly online meetings with hundreds of student workers between May and July. We shared up-to-date information, identified priorities, and supported student workers to establish local MSU chapters.

Thousands of migrant student workers on post graduate work permits (PGWPs) met in August and discussed being unable to complete the work experience required for permanent residency status because of unfair and impossible immigration rules. Many had lost their jobs because of COVID-19 or couldn’t find work. MSU launched a petition calling on the government to #FixPGWP, demanding renewable work permits, the valuing of all work to count toward permanent residency, and full and permanent immigration status for all. Over 4,000 migrant student workers signed.

On September 12, migrant student workers organized a mass rally outside Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office. On September 13, we rallied in Peel. On September 20, we joined rallies in Toronto. Our stories and our calls for urgent change were featured in CBC National, Global News, the Toronto Star, and across multiple major media outlets in Canada. On October 25, we rallied in Toronto and installed a giant work permit at immigration headquarters in downtown Toronto. We sent the Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino a letter, urging him to act quickly and make necessary changes. On November 24, we delivered over 16,000 petitions to Minister Mendicino’s office while dozens of student workers and allies took action online. In November, we also postered the Immigration Minister’s office and the riding, letting him know that he must stop mass deportations. MSU met with civil servants at Immigration Canada.

Faced with our ongoing organizing, the Immigration Minister committed to taking action in Parliament on December 1. But we didn’t stop. In December, we took our voice to the federal cabinet. We postered the offices of ministers Carolyn Bennett, Navdeep Bains, Maryam Monsef, and Carla Qualtrough. Hundreds of migrants and allies called and left messages for the Immigration Minister.

On January 8, 2021, migrant student workers won a major victory. The federal government responded to our demands and, for the first time in Canadian history, over 52,000 migrant student workers on the PGWP could now apply for another permit and have another chance to qualify for permanent residency.

The fight is not over. Many migrant student workers are in essential jobs, but their work is not valued or counted towards permanent immigration status because it is low-waged and deemed “lowskilled.” We have seen through COVID-19 that migrant student workers are doing the work that sustains society and our communities—they are stocking shelves overnight in grocery stores, handling packages at warehouses, cleaning offices and buildings, working in food service, and making deliveries through cold and snow. We will continue to take action so that all our work, and the work that we do as migrant and undocumented people, is valued.

These changes are a result of the tireless organizing that migrant student workers have been leading. Clearly the federal government is responding, and there is more to be done to ensure we have equal rights. Time and time again through the pandemic, it has been evident that for us to have equal rights, we must have equal status. We will continue to organize for full and permanent immigration status for all migrant and undocumented people, without exclusion and without exemption— and we won’t stop until all of us win.

Photo: MSU at Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office.


  • Sarom Rho is an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and a leader with Migrant Students United. She also works with Gig Workers United (fka Foodsters United)

2 thoughts on “Migrant Workers are Organizing, and Winning”

  1. If people want to immigrate to Canada they should go through the regular immigration system. Temporary permit holders do not have the same rights as permanent residents and demanding special rights is highly disrespectful to Canada . Follow the rules like everyone else. Migrant workers come here knowing exactly what they signed up for. How about some appreciation instead of demands?

    • Hi Tom — Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this article. I’m sure that you will agree that with the onset of the pandemic, life changed for everyone, not least of which were temporary workers in precarious situations. At CPJ, we believe that everyone is created in the image of God and as such must be treated with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, Canadian immigration rules — the regular immigration system as it were — leaves much to be desired. It contains many biases that favour the economic successes of Canadian enterprises often at the expense of the health and well-being of temporary workers and other racialized newcomers. We will therefore continue to advocate for justice and fairness for all people in Canada.


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