Migrant workers who fled wildfire worry about losing life in Canada
When Joann Gerebese heard the wildfire was moving toward the jewelry store where she worked in Fort McMurray, her first instinct was to run home and grab her passport and work permit.
By the time she was on the road, however, she realized that in her haste to secure her critical papers she had forgotten her bank cards and had just $30 in her pocket. But at least she had proof she could work in Canada.
Gerebese, a 34-year-old temporary foreign worker, moved to Fort McMurray from the Philippines for a job as a sales clerk at Borealis Diamonds in August 2014. She sends half of her earnings home each month to support her aging parents. The money covers expenses like the cost of treating her mother’s heart disease.
Now, as she stays at the University of Calgary with other evacuees, Gerebese worries that she may have to return to the Philippines and “start from scratch” if the jewelry shop doesn’t re-open.
Shopping for diamonds is unlikely to be a priority when people return to the city in the coming months, she noted. “If the government sends us back, it might be that’s it – the end of my Canada dream.”
Like Gerebese, hundreds of temporary foreign workers who have fled Fort McMurray face an uncertainty that other evacuees don’t. Their work permits are tied to a specific workplace for a specific employer. Even if their workplace doesn’t re-open for months or at all, they can’t work anywhere else in Canada and might ultimately have to leave.
“The first thing we hear, ‘What’s going to happen to our families?’ They really don’t think about themselves,” said Marco Luciano, spokesman for Migrante Canada, a foreign worker advocacy group, which has been meeting with migrant workers who fled to Edmonton.
Many temporary foreign workers are the primary breadwinners for families abroad, putting kids through school and providing for elderly family members, and may have taken out loans worth thousands of dollars to secure work in Canada, explained Syed Hussan, spokesman for the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada.
“This period of unemployment really dramatically affects many people’s ability to stay in the country. It’s a crisis point,” he said.
The problem is heightened for those workers who don’t qualify for employment insurance because they haven’t worked the required 630 hours over the past 52 weeks, according to a press release from the migrant workers coalition.
The group is calling on the government to give the foreign worker evacuees open work permits, so they can search for a new job in Canada. It’s also asking for employment insurance to be extended to foreign workers and all other evacuees who don’t qualify.
For migrant rights advocates, the plight of Fort McMurray’s foreign workers highlights long-standing concerns that they would like to see addressed by the federal government’s recently established review of the temporary foreign worker program.
“Their workplace does not exist because it’s caught on fire,” said Hussan. “But people can face a number of considerations. Their workplace could make them sick. Their workplace could go under.”
His coalition is calling for open work permits for all migrant workers, as well as permanent residency upon landing and the removal of a restriction that limits low-wage foreign workers to working in Canada for a maximum of four years.
“The work they do here is not temporary,” explained Luciano, noting that many jobs, including those in food services and retail, are filled by migrant workers for years.
The coalition says such changes could help halt abuses of migrant workers, including cases in which they are not paid for overtime or given proper safety gear for dangerous work, because workers are too scared to complain for fearing of losing their right to remain in Canada.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Economic and Social Development Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
But Bryan May, the Ontario MP chairing the review of the program, said on Tuesday the review will aim to take stock of the temporary foreign worker program as whole, including the concerns of migrant workers.
He also said the review may result in the creation of pathways to citizenship for temporary foreign workers filling permanent vacancies, a move that could help Canadian businesses.
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