A robust immigration system is key to our recovery

September 25, 2020

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in The Province

COVID-19 has forced rethinks on many aspects of our lives that we previously took for granted.

That includes thinking about how our communities function, and specifically about who ensures that they continue to, even in times of upheaval.

This has brought more visibility to the workers who many of us don’t often consider: migrant workers, temporary foreign workers, and newcomers who do the jobs that many Canadians won’t.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, these essential workers were hard at work, day in and day out, in order to put food on our table, to take care of our seniors, and to help us all maintain some level of normalcy.

Their contributions point to how invaluable a well-rounded immigration policy would mean to a nation like Canada that relies on immigrants for its prosperity and well-being, especially now as our communities struggle to recover.

This crisis has shone a light on the weaknesses of our current immigration system and demonstrated how workers can easily be taken advantage of, mistreated and/or prevented from fully integrating due to policies and attitudes that are at times discriminatory and tilted in favour of employers rather than towards the rights of workers.

In fact, after hearing stories of abuse this past summer, Canada’s Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, went as far as to call the treatment of some migrant farm workers a “national disgrace”. The Minister pledged to look at how to reform the program. Overall, some 60,000 temporary foreign workers plant and harvest crops each year, often forced to live in cramped and crowded conditions.

Advocates, including the nation’s unions, have long pointed to solutions such as ensuring that all workers be provided with comprehensive workers protections, and that we finally provide pathways for status for workers who want to stay in Canada and contribute like the generations of immigrants before them.

Numerous studies have pointed out that without immigration, we will struggle to sustain the social programs and services that support our society. With a population that is both shrinking and aging, our reliance on immigration remains high. Yet, this year alone, the number of immigrants arriving in Canada has tumbled significantly from this time last year and the country will fall well below its targets (the government will need to increase its future targets to address this or risk an even more sluggish economy).

In the meantime, we can help address these shortfalls immediately by providing pathways to status to workers who are already here or on their way. The federal government has already provided a temporary measure that would allow asylum claimants working in health care to apply for permanent residency. A similar measure should extend to all asylum claimants working to get us through this pandemic. Whether a worker is clearing our hospitals, stocking our warehouses, or picking fruit, they deserve an opportunity to continue their lives here without the uncertainty and anxiety of the unknown. Otherwise, these programs risk becoming exploitative and make us vulnerable when borders shut down.

As for undocumented workers, they, too, deserve the opportunity to become regularized and to live with their families without fear of being imprisoned and deported. It’s why pilot projects to help provide status for those without it are important, yet represent only a stop-gap measure until we implement more permanent ways to provide amnesty to those living and working amongst us.

Furthermore, even high-skilled professional newcomers require more support to ensure Canada remains an attractive destination. Stories of foreign-trained doctors offering their services during the peak of the pandemic and anemic efforts to provide temporary licences are a reminder that we fail to recognize international credentials to our peril. The under-employment and over-qualification of newcomers is far too common, as are the pay gaps facing immigrants, particularly women.

Our rethink on immigration requires we no longer view those considered to have low skills any less valuable than those with university degrees. And those with those degrees deserve to put them to use and to expect fair treatment.

We need a robust system that welcomes everyone who helps make our country stronger, more resilient, and increases our capacity to take care of each other. This is crucial to our collective recovery.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff

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