May 5, 2020 - No. 31

Hold Governments to Account for COVID-19 Outbreaks Amongst
Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers

• The Need to Defend Asylum Seekers in Quebec  - Interview, Frantz André, Quebec-Haiti Solidarity Committee
Defence Organization Justicia for Migrant Workers Demands Protection for All Ontario Farm Workers
• Greenhill Produce Migrant Workers'  Plea for Help
• Fighting for Migrant Workers and their Rights During COVID-19 - Interview, Maria Sol Pajadura, Chairperson, Migrante Canada

Hold Governments to Account for COVID-19 Outbreaks
Amongst Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers

The Need to Defend Asylum Seekers in Quebec

Demonstration in Montreal, December 2, 2018, defends the rights of Haitian asylum seekers
calling for an end to deportations.

My name is Frantz André. I am from Montreal, Canada and I have been working full time with asylum seekers, mainly of Haitian origin, for five years, since July 2017, at my own expense, seven days a week. In the context of the pandemic, we all agree that we cannot return to normal. Normal would be to continue doing business as usual when we know that the system is broken and has brought us to the brink. We have an opportunity to work together, so that "business as usual" according to the rules of those who oppress us is no longer normal.

I'm going to talk first about the situation of asylum seekers in the Haitian community who are patient care attendants in residential and long-term care centres (CHSLDs) and home care aides, and of those who have no choice but to continue working despite the alarming increase in cases of COVID-19 infection. Montreal North has become one of the largest centres of infection in Quebec. It is home to the most vulnerable people who are most at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and they are my people, the Haitian people.

Since 2017, we have a large number of asylum seekers here in Canada who have arrived from the United States because they no longer have Temporary Protected Status in the U.S., which was a moratorium on deportations.[1] It is important to know that the acceptance rate for asylum seekers of Haitian origin between 2012 and 2016 was around 50 per cent. As early as 2017, this rate decreased to 22 per cent and in 2018, to 10 per cent. This large wave of Haitian refugee claimants arriving at our borders happened because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote in a Tweet: "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, know that Canada will welcome you. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada." But for three years now, the message seems to be: "Get out of Canada."

The majority of asylum seekers in 2017 were of Haitian origin. They work as security guards, patient care attendants and home care aides. They are my colleagues. In Montreal North, where there is a high density of Haitians, they are the ones who become the most infected. We have small apartments where from five to seven people live in the same space -- we like to live with our parents and our grandparents and they are the ones who will be the most affected. Now we have people dying.[2]

Who benefits from this? Employment agencies that do not respect rights, that do not pay them even minimum wage. They pick people up from their homes, and drive them one and a half hours to two hours to work. After they work eight hours, they have to come back again in a one and a half to two hour trip, so three to four hours travelling, 11 to 12 hours in total. They sometimes travel in minivans with nine passengers that are meant to take seven people normally, so you can imagine the danger.

And who is stigmatized? The black population, including Haitians. We're the ones on the street. If you come to Montreal, look at those who work morning and night, on the buses, in the subways, on the streets, they are the racialized people. And that's not right. What we are experiencing now is a crisis and that is what is happening to a specific community.

Workers' Forum: Can you tell us something about the history of your demand for a moratorium on deportation of Haitians and for providing asylum seekers with full workers' rights?

Frantz André

Frantz André: I will go back in time. In 2018 there was a movement that started from here in Canada on the issue of Petrocaribe funds. Oil was being sold by Venezuela at very low prices to allow the Haitian government to free up funds for reconstruction following the 2010 earthquake, and for social programs. The Moise-Lafontant government was in place at that time and wanted to increase the price of oil because the IMF had said "No, we can no longer continue to subsidize you." The population rose up. It was at that time that I started asking for a moratorium to protect people who were being refused and deported in an accelerated manner. My argument was that Haiti was at such a level of insecurity that the government could not continue to deport people to a country where there were riots and people were being killed. The Canadian government didn't react right away. Border officials continued to deport. The security situation in Haiti reached a point of acute deterioration and Prime Minister Lafontant had to resign.

France and the United States then sent helicopters to pick up their nationals at the Decameron Hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels in Haiti, to bring them home. Canada delayed doing the same for a long time. We asked "If the U.S. and French governments did it, why not you?" In July 2018, the government issued a notice to avoid all non-essential travel to Haiti because of the civil unrest in Haiti. This meant that the country was so insecure that no one should travel there. People who have fled insecurity, who have come all the way to Canada, who were facing exploitation and disrespect of their rights, of their human rights according to international law, cannot be sent back to a country that is totally insecure. These people are providers who contribute economically and culturally, who abide by the laws, who do not want to end up on welfare. They are future full-fledged citizens. Citizenship has a special meaning for them in the sense that they want to ensure that they are being recognized for their potential to contribute to Canadian society.

The government had no choice but to put in place a temporary reprieve and that moratorium has been extended. In 2019, an election year, in order to win votes, they kept the temporary reprieve so we would not make too much noise on the street. They increased the acceptance rate.

According to the government the moratorium will not be lifted until the level of security is acceptable. In Haiti, according to our observations, the Haitian state has encouraged insecurity. Why has it encouraged insecurity? With the popular mobilization that condemned Jovenel Moise, the current president, for having participated in a system of corruption, the population is asking the government to account for the billions of dollars that it received under the Petrocaribe plan for the reconstruction of Haiti which was never done.

Our demand is to ensure that asylum seekers are recognized as full-fledged workers with the same rights as everyone who works.

WF: What are the latest developments in this situation?

FA: We have noticed in recent months that there are more middle class people asking to come to Canada because of the terror in Haiti, a terror that is mainly state-organized. There are kidnappings on the streets and ransom demands by groups connected to the government. Insecurity is at its peak. Civil servants, doctors, professionals are leaving Haiti to apply for asylum here because they are most at risk of being kidnapped for ransom.

Among the difficulties encountered are the conflicts between the different levels of the federal and Quebec governments. Changes are frequent, without notice, and lawyers have difficulty keeping up. We learn about changes through the plaintiffs.

It is important to remember that legal aid and social assistance are provincial. All refugee claimants are under federal jurisdiction. This creates a conflict between Quebec's Minister of Immigration Simon Jolin-Barrette and his federal counterpart. Jolin-Barrette has no authority over refugee claimants. Quebec offers social assistance and legal aid services to people who are under federal jurisdiction. Due to lack of funds, legal aid has become more restrictive in accepting applications. As a result, many refugee claimants who would normally be eligible for social assistance automatically are now refused and placed under a discretionary power. Many of these people arrived with no more than $500 in their pockets and I go with them to get social assistance. I have to explain to the welfare staff that there is a moratorium, that they will not be deported, so they are eligible for welfare.

Another problem is the filing of asylum applications. Both at the border and internally, border officials are overwhelmed. Appointments to obtain proof of identity for the asylum seeker are sometimes not given until two, three or even six weeks after their arrival, because right from the beginning, border officials seized their passports, national identity cards and so on. Before they receive the document that legitimizes that they are a refugee claimant, it takes weeks. Without that document there is no social assistance. They find themselves in a state of civil death, in a grey area, for two months or more.

For example, a lady entered with her daughter in October 2019, with a visa, legitimately. Another of her daughters, who has been here for years and has permanent residence took them in. The lady wanted to enrol her 17-year-old daughter in school. But since she had not yet applied for asylum, her daughter could not go to school. Before the files were prepared and we were comfortable making the application for asylum, it was already January. I went with the mother and daughter to make the application. We handed over the documents. The woman and her daughter were supposed to return to pick up her refugee claim document on April 6. This document allows you to get legal aid, open a bank account, etc. That day, because of the pandemic, the offices were closed. So they still do not have the required papers and therefore don't have social assistance.

This is the reality for people who entered Canada legitimately, who are asylum seekers, and who need the services, but are penalized in various ways, by government administrative slowness or by Quebec's refusal to provide automatic assistance (legal aid and social assistance). Meanwhile, they have no work permits and are forced to work under the table. They are also exposed to violence. For example employers take advantage of workers who don't have legal status. To survive many are silent about mistreatment. In some cases, women prostitute themselves, fall into the hands of pimps, and men get beaten up in the workplace and won't go to court.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that asylum seekers must be recognized as full-fledged workers with the same rights as all those who work here.


1. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a program created by the U.S. Congress in 1990, that allows foreign nationals to remain in the U.S. if, while they were in the U.S., something catastrophic happened in their country of origin that prevented their safe return. Examples include war, famine, natural disaster, or epidemic. TPS protects people from deportation and allows them to work legally while they remain in the U.S. The program is a temporary form of relief that does not confer permanent residency, citizenship, or any right to ongoing immigration status. TPS status was granted to tens of thousands of Haitians when the deadly earthquake struck their country in 2010, followed by a cholera epidemic and hurricanes. In 2017, the Trump administration ended TPS status for people from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other countries. Because of mass protests and lawsuits against the federal administration, the Department of Homeland Security extended TPS for a number of countries, including Haiti, through January 4, 2021, pending a decision from the lawsuits.

Faced with the threat of deportation and because they are denied entry into Canada through its regular border crossing with the U.S. because of the Safe Third Country Agreement, many Haitians seeking refuge began crossing into Canada irregularly through Roxham Road, located in Hemmingford, Quebec, a small town in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

In 2017, 24,980 asylum claims were presented in Quebec. In 2018, that number rose to 27,970, of which 66 per cent were submitted by people who entered irregularly (with 18,518 intercepted by Canadian authorities). Of these, Haiti was among the top five countries of origin for asylum seekers.

The World Bank recognizes Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with millions of people living below the extreme poverty line. In 2004, Canada, along with the U.S. and France, participated in regime change in that country, thereby removing Haiti's democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

2. Montreal North is home to many Quebeckers of Haitian origin as well as many Haitian permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers. It is Montreal's hardest hit borough with regard to COVID-19.

As of May 1, public health data showed 1,316 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Montreal North an infection rate of 1, 562 per 100,000 people. For comparison, Montreal overall has 804 cases per 100,000 people, whereas areas of Quebec outside Montreal and its suburbs have 101 cases per 100,000. Why is the rate of infection so high in Montreal North?

In Canada, refugees, refugee claimants, protected persons or their family members, those under an unenforceable removal order or who are temporary resident permit holders or young workers participating in special programs can apply for an open work permit that is not job-specific. Many of them are recruited by agencies to work in long-term care facilities (CHSLDs) and private seniors' residences as patient attendants. They earn $14-15 per hour. The agency then bills the residence a much higher amount and it keeps the difference. As it becomes increasingly difficult for these facilities to find people to work at low wages and exploitative conditions, the agencies make sure they benefit even more by billing at even higher rates. Others of these workers are hired by agencies to work in meat-processing plants. Each morning, some half dozen workers are picked up by an agency in a single van and driven to their workplace, often more than an hour's drive away.

La Presse journalist Yves Boisvert interviewed one such worker, who had arrived in 2018 seeking asylum through the Roxham Road irregular crossing. Her claim as well as her appeal have been refused by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Her only remaining option is to apply for permanent residency based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Her husband died in 2004 and she has four children, three of whom live in Haiti and who she sends the little money she earns to help support them. When she first arrived in Quebec in 2018, she was hired to work in a pork slaughterhouse. She then took a course to work with seniors.

She explained that before having contracted the virus, she had worked for an agency in two separate seniors' residences and that two of her co-workers died after contracting the coronavirus -- one a woman she did not know well and the other a refugee in his forties.

A second woman living in Montreal North interviewed by the same journalist had been working in Valleyfield, again through an agency and earning low wages. She also entered the country irregularly through Roxham Road three years ago and has also contracted COVID-19. She recounted that just prior to the 2016 election in Haiti, people had entered her home, killed her nephew and beaten her up. Since then, she has had difficulty walking. Upon her arrival in Canada she worked in a factory which was too physically straining for her, which is why she became a patient attendant. She is still waiting for test results to find out if she is now clear of the virus.

(Translated from the original french by Workers' Forum. Photos: WF)

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Defence Organization Justicia for Migrant Workers Demands Protection for All Ontario Farm Workers

Organizations active in defending migrant workers are stepping up their fight in defence of all farm workers. The most vulnerable farm workers are the over 60,000 seasonal and temporary workers who come to Canada each year to work in the agriculture industry. Many arrive through federal programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

In March, the federal government granted farmers the ability to hire migrant workers throughout the pandemic, so long as the workers self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival. This condition, ,however, does not apply to those deemed essential by public health officials. This means that some migrant workers are forced to work during their period of self-isolation. The federal government also shamefully washed its hands of the responsibility to ensure the ways and means through which migrant farm workers can practice social distancing at work and in their lodgings. Migrant farm workers typically live in inadequate housing that is shared by a large number of workers. In spite of this, the federal government has decreed that farm businesses, in conjunction with the provinces, are the best positioned to provide adequate lodging.

Migrant farmworkers prepare to leave Jamaica for their jobs on Canadian farms.  

On May 1, Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) wrote to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and to the members of the Ontario Command Table for COVID-19, to demand that urgent and immediate steps be taken by the Ontario government to protect farm workers. [1]

The letter says: "Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is writing to request urgent and immediate action is taken to protect the thousands of agricultural workers employed in the province of Ontario. With recent reports that there have been confirmed cases at two large farming operations, Highline Mushrooms and Greenhill Produce, it is imperative that the province responds.

"J4MW is asking what steps will the province undertake to protect the interests of farm workers, and to protect the food supply chain. We urge the province to immediately suspend any agricultural workplace from operating until the workplace is fully sanitized and the workers are provided with full Personal Protective Equipment while at work. Furthermore workers should be paid full wages during the sanitization process. Finally it is imperative that Ministry of Labour inspectors extend their inspections to include bunkhouses and all agricultural dwellings provided to farm workers. Finally it is also critical that the province develop a COVID-19 action plan to protect workers specifically in agriculture.

"J4MW is urging that the provincial government and the Ministry of Labour undertake immediate steps to eliminate blatant discrimination against farm workers so that all farm workers can be protected from the spread of the pandemic. These steps include:

- "Extend the wage boost to include farm workers in Ontario [wage boost refers to wage increase and special bonuses that the Ontario government granted to some of the workers providing front-line services during the pandemic for which farm workers are not eligible - WF Note]

- Provide an expedited appeals process for migrant workers when filing complaints with respect to occupational health and safety and employment standards complaints.

- Migrant farm workers should be provided the ability to work so that they are not tied to a single employer.

- Extend occupational health and safety legislation to include agricultural dwellings.

- Strengthen anti-reprisal protections to ensure workers are not fired for raising health and safety concerns or if they become sick or injured at work.

- Develop regulations to protect workers from heat stress, chemical or pesticide. exposure, confined spaces, working at heights and other occupational hazards.

- Increase proactive and snap inspection on all farming operations across Ontario

- Provide hazard pay, sick pay and other benefits to recognize the dangers associated with agricultural work.

- Recognize piece rate as an occupational health and safety hazard.

- Develop and implement occupational health and safety legislation that recognizes, race, racism, systemic discrimination and provides an equity analysis in determining which categories of workers are at greater risk of occupational hazards.

- Communicate what protocols the WSIB has in place to isolate infected workers (and protect uninfected workers) if there is an outbreak in the bunkhouse or workplace.

- End employer wage deductions for all personal protective equipment and develop regulations that ensure employers provide bathrooms, washing facilities and potable water for farm workers across Ontario.

- Strengthen migrant worker protection against recruitment fees by holding employers and recruiters jointly liable.

- End the exclusions to holiday pay, overtime pay, minimum hours of work provisions and the myriad of regulations that deny fairness to farmworkers." 

JAMW points out that these measures are longstanding requests that farm workers have been bringing forward for decades. It says that to stamp out the spread of this pandemic, it is critical that structural changes are made to address the systemic power imbalances that exist in the fields.

"These structural inequities in agriculture work are exacerbated under the twin forces of the pandemic and harvesting pressures. It has therefore never been more imperative to provide the workers with all the rights and protections. Farm employers are receiving several benefits in the form of subsidies and other grants and other regulatory exemptions. It is time that the workers receive the benefits that are due to them and are valued for their essential labour, " says the letter in conclusion.


1. The Ontario Command Table for COVID-19 was set up by the Ontario government at the beginning of March. According to the government, the Command Table is the "single point of oversight providing executive leadership and strategic direction to guide Ontario's response to COVID-19. " The Command Table reports to the Minister of Health. It is chaired by the Deputy Minister of Health, and includes Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Heath, Ontario Health's President and Chief Executive Officer, and has representation from Public Health Ontario, the Ministry of Long-Term Care and Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

(Photos: WF, C.J. Chanco, R. Makyn, T. Donaldson)

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Greenhill Produce Migrant Workers' Plea for Help

Guatemalan migrant farm workers in Canada.

On its web site, Justicia for Migrant Workers posted the following letter that it received and that it wants to share widely in light of recent reports about the outbreak of COVID-19 at Greenhill Produce in Chatham-Kent, Ontario. According to the medical officer of health for Chatham-Kent, as of April 27, 40 workers tested positive for COVID-19 among the workforce of about 100 workers. On May 4 it was reported the number had risen to 51. As of the date of the letter, April 28, 2020, all the workers had been tested, and 22 tests had come back negative. The majority of the workers at Greenhill Produce who have tested positive for the disease are migrant workers, but most are not new arrivals, having been in Canada four months to one year or more. Greenhill Produce grows sweet peppers.

The letter from a worker at Greenhill Produce reads:

"We the farm workers of Greenhill produce feel a bit outcast like we are the least we feel a bit disrespect... guys test result positive and guys test result negative from Sunday April 22 and up to this date April 24 we the positive and the negative are living in the same house using the same utensils, same bathroom, doing everything like nothing is wrong only told they are following the health procedures... we ask for sanitizers to help kill the spreading of the virus in such a crowded place until now none. Thanks to God some guys always buy bleach that's what we have to be using...we gave them food list we get what is the Canadian norm of shopping.

"We want a voice we are so afraid to talk, we are afraid we get sent back home. This is our JOB this is how we survive this is how we take care of our family back home. Without this God help so we are grateful for the job we are happy for it but we need to be treated as equal as everyone. Liaison officers who should be our advocate we haven't seen nor hear from them. We have to speak out for us, we want to feel comfortable working that if we get injured we are treated equal. This could have been avoided this is a part of negligence. When workers took sick, they took too long before medical attention and still going to work then it spread... please please hear our cry."

(Chatham Voice. Photos: Prensa Libre, J4MW)

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Fighting for Migrant Workers and
Their Rights During COVID-19

Caregivers contingent in International Women's Day 2020 in Toronto.

Workers' Forum is posting below an interview with Maria Sol Pajadura, Chairperson of Migrante Canada, a Canada-wide defence organization for migrant workers from the Philippines and other countries.

Workers' Forum: Migrante Canada does a lot of work providing practical assistance to migrant workers. Can you speak a bit about how COVID-19 is impacting different sectors of migrant workers, food industry, caregivers and so on and what projects Migrante has taken up to assist these workers?

Maria Sol Pajadura: COVID-19 has affected migrant workers directly. For example, since the announcement of lockdown in Ontario and other provinces, migrant workers in the food industry, construction and other workplaces such as cleaning services and restaurants have been laid off. Those migrant workers without status are even in a worse off situation because they are more vulnerable and are not eligible for benefits of any kind. For those still working such as in private elder care, some employees are insisting that they remain in the house and be available 24/7 without any additional pay under threat of losing their jobs and therefore risk becoming ineligible for landed status.

Migrante Canada has set up Kapitbisig Laban (link arms) COVID, a mutual aid network in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal to assist and support migrant workers who have lost their jobs and help them secure food and money through financial and in-kind donations. We also try to find jobs for these workers, if we can. We also talk to them regularly to make sure that they are not isolated. The isolation is hard on their mental health and well-being, especially those with no status who are facing great anxiety not knowing how they will support their families who are depending on them back home.

WF: Many migrant workers have been deemed "essential" during the pandemic, for example agricultural workers, food and service industry workers, yet they are denied any supports that the federal and provincial governments have put into place. Can you speak a bit about this situation?

MSP: If a migrant worker has papers, they are eligible for EI or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. We help those who are eligible with their applications. It is the ones who have no status or who came to Canada and then find themselves without a job because of unscrupulous recruiters and Canada's refusal to protect migrant workers, who are facing the most difficulty. They find themselves isolated and with no access to EI, health care or any other benefits. It is the same for those with no status. They have family back home depending on them and this not only causes mental anguish for the worker, but the family they support face starvation and suffering back in the Philippines. It is inhumane.

WF: Migrante is part of the campaign of the Caregivers Action Centre and others calling for the federal government to grant landed status for all migrant workers on arrival to Canada. Can you inform our readers about that campaign?

MSP: Yes, we are actually part of the Migrant Rights Network that is calling on the federal government to act now to ensure that migrant workers, including those without status, be given landed status and all benefits that they deserve as workers, as human beings. We are saying that if these workers are "essential" and COVID-19 has clearly shown migrant workers play a critical role in the economy and society, then their contribution must be recognized and they should receive landed status and all benefits such as healthcare, EI and other supports. We are also calling on the Trudeau government to regularize the status of undocumented migrant workers so that they can remain and continue to work openly. We state that these workers are not criminals but are victims of a system that preys on their vulnerability. That is our demand. It is high time Canada stopped the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and treated them like human beings.

To find out more about Kapitbisig Laban COVID visit

(Photos: Kapitbisig Laban, Caregivers Action Centre)

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