Evidence of meeting #21 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was seasonal.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Robert Falconer  Research Associate, School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, As an Individual
Syed Hussan  Executive Director, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
Debbie Douglas  Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants
Fernand Thibodeau  Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

3:10 p.m.

Debbie Douglas Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the committee for the opportunity to appear before you today.

I am joining you from Toronto, the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. It's now home to many diverse first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

I will speak to you about three priorities that must be considered by the government in its COVID response: regularization of immigration status, access to benefits and supports for all, and immigration selection.

First is regularization of immigration status, and I know that you heard from Mr. Hassan before me.

Canada has a large and growing population with precarious immigration status living and working here. That includes refused refugee claimants from Haiti working in long-term care and other essential services in the greater Montreal area, and undocumented people working in the food supply chain, in personal care work, cleaning and more. They pay taxes and fees, and some even pay personal income tax, but they cannot access government benefits or programs.

Because of their precarious immigration status, undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Given the nature of our temporary worker programs, the majority of such workers are racialized. In these COVID times, many are working in unsafe conditions, feeling they cannot say or do anything for fear they would lose their jobs. Clearly, they're needed because employers continue to employ them, and most likely also pay them lower wages.

Undocumented women are among those most vulnerable to exploitation, including domestic and intimate-partner violence. These women are also predominantly racialized.

We think these unprecedented times present Canada with an opportunity to seriously consider a broad immigration status regularization program to allow people with precarious immigration status to gain permanent residence. Canada already has at least two pilot programs of this kind: one in the GTA that is focused on workers in the construction sector, and another more recent program for certain agricultural workers.

While there are only estimates of how many people are here with precarious immigration status, we know those numbers have grown over time, particularly when there are changes to various immigration programs and people have fallen through the gaps. A number of such residents have been living and working in Canada, sometimes for many years. They are already established. They have networks and likely even family members who may be permanent residents or Canadian citizens.

There are families with mixed citizenship, and Canadian children with undocumented parents. This is not unusual in Canada. These Canadian children are often denied benefits.

Refugee claimants, migrant workers, international students and people who are undocumented or have otherwise precarious status present a good pool of candidates to draw from to meet the immigration targets already set by government, which we know we will not meet this year and most likely will not meet next year either because of the pandemic.

People with less than full residency status or citizenship are members of our communities and contribute to our economy. We gain far more from their presence here than they get back. Let's do the right thing, and let them gain full permanent resident status.

The other issue, which is related, is access to benefits for everyone. Building on my earlier point, people with precarious immigration status pay taxes and fees, and some even pay personal income tax, but they cannot access government benefits or programs. Research shows that they put far more into our economy than they use in publicly funded services.

During the COVID crisis, many have lost their jobs in the informal economy, and thus their incomes. They have no financial support or access to any benefits. Recently, OCASI, my organization, collaborated with some of our member agencies and others across the province, Toronto and southern Ontario in particular. Working with two private foundations, we were able to secure some dollars to provide some support to those without any income. It wasn't a lot of money, so you can imagine it went very quickly.

Agencies have also privately fundraised to address the urgent need they are seeing for financial support and basic resources, but these efforts are small and highly localized. They don't reach all those who need help, and of course, they're not sufficient.

We appreciate the fact that the government has given a boost to the Canada child benefit. This is welcome for many low-income families with minor children, but it is a benefit that is not available to people with precarious immigration status, even if they have Canadian-born children, as I mentioned earlier.

We also welcome the one-time top-up to the old age security and guaranteed income supplement. These benefits, however, are not available to permanent residents who have lived here for less than 10 years, even if they have lived and worked here for, say, nine and a half years. At this time, when even their own family members may have suffered a loss of income, there may be literally no one they can rely on for income support.

These are very difficult times for so many residents, but especially for people with precarious immigration status. I urge you to call for an extension of government benefits and programs to all residents, regardless of immigration status, until we can weather this crisis. Government can do this by issuing a temporary social insurance number that people can use to apply. We will come out stronger as a society and be in a better place to start rebuilding the economy, working safely and together.

My final point is to urge you to open up economic immigration selection. If there is one thing we have learned during this pandemic, it is how much of what we consider essential work is unseen. We notice it only when it is missing, when there is no food on our tables, when there is no one taking care of elderly Canadians in long-term care homes—cooking for them and cleaning up after them—when there is no one to package and deliver the food, medicine, toilet paper and other essential supplies that we need.

However, these are not the jobs in our immigration selection program, which is skewed to highly skilled workers and highly educated students in certain sectors. Don't get me wrong. Yes, we need those people with those skills. We also need those who grow and harvest our food; work in our meat and fish plants; build our homes; work as caregivers, cleaners and general labourers; and work in our call centres. Let us learn from the experience and open up immigration selection to match the reality of what we are seeing on the ground in labour markets across Canada.

In the interim, we should start giving people who are already here an opportunity to become permanent residents if that is what they're interested in doing. Some may not be interested. They may prefer to return to their home countries, but there are many others who want to stay and have already started taking the steps towards that by working and building a life here.

Mr. Chair, in the time that I have left, I want to acknowledge the positive work relationship that has been happening in the sector in collaboration with the federal government. This, I believe, underlines the importance of consistent relationship building and joint work, as happens through our sector's national settlement and integration council, NSIC.

As you know, OCASI, my organization, is the umbrella for over 230 agencies across Ontario that provide services and programs to newcomers to Canada. The sector—and I know I can speak for my sister umbrella organizations across the country—was relieved and encouraged that the federal government declared it an essential service. We have two primary reasons for absolutely seeing this as good policy. The primary role of immigrant and refugee-serving agencies is to support newcomers in the process of building a new life in Canada.

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Ms. Douglas, I'll ask you to wrap up as you're well over time.

3:20 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

I'm sorry.

During the pandemic, during the whole COVID situation, our agencies have been the places that newcomers have been turning to for support, for information about income supports, for support in filing income taxes, for interpretation and translation of information about income supports.

We want to say a special thank you to IRCC for keeping the sector going by having workers stay on the job and by being flexible in allowing organizations to be responsive to the needs that they're seeing in their local communities.

Thank you. I look forward to our discussion.

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Ms. Douglas.

Mr. Thibodeau, you may go ahead.

June 22nd, 2020 / 3:20 p.m.

Fernand Thibodeau Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Honourable members of the committee, good afternoon.

I appear before you today to talk about the situation facing workers in seasonal industries who live in regions that revolve around those industries.

Seasonal industries have always played an important role in Canada's economy. In certain regions of the country, those industries are paramount, generating the bulk of available jobs. Unfortunately, because of this dependence on seasonal industries in a growing number of regions, workers can no longer live on the combination of seasonal work and employment insurance, or EI.

Even if workers take every available job during the busy season, they can't get through the off-season. In a good year, a seasonal worker will work for 14 weeks, or the equivalent of 525 hours. Even in regions where the unemployment rate is over 16%, workers are eligible for only 33 weeks of benefits, leaving them with no income for five weeks. The problem is that few jobs are available in the off-season. The lack of economic diversity means that workers have to rely on EI.

The black hole or spring gap, in other words, the weeks without income, exacerbates regional decline. People are fed up with always having to live on the brink, so they move to urban centres. The government's response—a pilot project to provide five additional weeks of benefits—was certainly a welcome boost, but it's not enough. As I've just shown, even in regions with the highest unemployment rates, the spring gap persists. It's always existed, but for many of us, it's gotten worse in recent years. It has to do with the fact that a number of affected communities are in EI economic regions with lower unemployment rates that do not reflect the local economies.

For instance, in the Restigouche-Albert region, where I'm from, our small communities depend on the seasonal industry, but they are lumped together with the Moncton suburban area, and that brings down the unemployment rate. Let's look at another example. On the upper north shore, the local unemployment rate is 9% higher than the rate of the EI economic region it belongs to. In order to qualify for benefits, workers have to accumulate nearly 700 hours, which is very hard to do. What's more, even if they do qualify, all they are entitled to is 18 weeks of benefits.

I'd like to draw your attention to another problem. The unemployment rate is dropping in a number of affected communities, but the reason isn't that there are more jobs. It's that the population is getting older, so fewer people are applying for the same number of jobs—hence, why the pilot project needs to be enhanced. We suggested that to the minister, but to no avail, unfortunately.

Here's what we are recommending. First, the government should raise the number of additional weeks of benefits in the designated regions to 10. Those additional weeks would be subject to the current maximum number of benefit weeks, 45 and more. Next, the government should expand access to the pilot project by changing the eligibility criteria for seasonal workers. Right now, the rules are complicated and arbitrary, so much so that genuine seasonal workers don't qualify for benefits. We recommend making employers indicate on the record of employment whether the layoff was seasonal, so workers are judged less harshly. In addition, we recommend that the government revisit the EI economic regions map to bring it more in line with labour market conditions. The map hasn't changed in 20 years. Can you believe that? It's time to brush off the dust and bring it up to date.

I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize the people who work at the Canada Employment Insurance Commission and all the committees who have worked so hard on employment insurance issues. I'd also like to thank the Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses, because the EI offices are closed and we are the ones having to help those workers.

Lastly, there is another option: redesigning the parameters of the EI program for all Canadians. That means making 420 the number of hours required to qualify, providing 35 or even 40 additional weeks of benefits, and using the best 12 weeks to determine the benefit rate. That formula has a dual advantage: simplicity and fairness.

To those who worry that such changes could lead to abuse of the system, I have two things to say. First, even full EI benefits do not provide the equivalent of minimum wage, which, in and of itself, is not enough to meet the government's low-income cut-off.

Second, according to the Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report, on average, claimants access benefits for just 20 of the 35 weeks they are entitled to. That means the vast majority of Canadians use the EI program reasonably. Conversely, 33% of claimants exhaust their benefits before they are able to find work. Those are the people we worry about, and I hope you do too.

In closing, I hope you take two things away from my presentation. Number one, regions need revitalization support. Number two, EI will not fix every problem, to be sure, but it's an essential part of the solution. The government needs to make changes to EI to better support seasonal workers in affected regions. As I see it, there's a serious problem. EI failed people during the COVID-19 crisis, so the government had to invent a whole new program, the Canada emergency response benefit.

Thank you.

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Thibodeau.

We'll begin now with questions, starting with Mr. Albas for six minutes, please.

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Thank you.

I'd like to thank both of our witnesses for your testimonies here today and for sharing your expertise with our committee.

In the last hour, I asked two of our witnesses to talk a little bit about the payroll taxes that people who come on a temporary foreign worker program or a seasonal agriculture worker program pay into the system, particularly the Canada Pension Plan and EI, knowing that they won't be able to benefit from those programs down the road. Obviously there are concerns that if those payroll taxes were not paid, there would be an inequality between a Canadian worker and someone on a temporary foreign worker seasonal agriculture worker program.

Do you have any idea why this policy exists, and why it is set up in such a way that currently someone who is in this country and is contributing into the system has no expectation of getting something out of it ?

Do you have any suggestions on how best to address this without creating an inequality between Canadian workers and those who are here on a temporary basis?

3:25 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

Mr. Chair, my sense is that temporary foreign workers do not mind paying payroll taxes. What they want is access to those benefits when they need them. If they get sick or there's a shortage of jobs, they want to be able to access the benefits, including if they have to return to their country and there will be some time before they are able to become gainfully employed.

One of the reasons temporary foreign workers come to Canada to work in such extreme situations and come back year after year is often that there's a lack of opportunity in their home country. I think we should be looking at how we can ensure that they have access when they need it to the social benefit programs that they've paid into, particularly CPP once they reach retirement age, but also EI when there's a downturn or if, as sometimes happens, they speak up for their rights or they speak up for the rights of others, and then they're not brought back the following year. They should be able to tap into the EI system while they resolve that situation.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Thibodeau, do you want to comment? No?

Okay, maybe I'll move on to the next question.

I also asked about this in the first hour and want to get your opinions. The government is giving $1,500 per worker to employers for support during mandatory quarantine. Do you feel employers are using this money effectively to support workers while they have to be in lockdown?

Ms. Douglas, we'll start with you, but Mr. Thibodeau, we'd also like to hear from you.

3:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

What we've heard from our colleagues who are working more closely and more directly with migrant workers is that there's been very little monitoring of that situation. Even in those workplaces where folks were able to quarantine safely, relatively speaking, they then often went back into congregated living arrangements, and hence the rapid rise in number of infections in southern Ontario, as an example.

Without monitoring, without farmers and other employers needing to demonstrate that the dollars really are being used to keep workers safe, I'm not sure how we can address the situation. The money has been sent out, and we need to hold those folks accountable to ensure that workers are able to carry out social distancing, not only within their living arrangements but also when they're out in the workplace.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Thibodeau, do you have any feedback on this question?

3:30 p.m.

Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

Fernand Thibodeau

Plants that employ seasonal workers received money to protect those workers, and provide them with face shields and, in some cases, install barriers to separate them.

We've also seen major discrepancies in the bonuses those workers have been receiving during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them got an hourly pay increase of $0.50, and others got two dollars or four dollars. I've heard from many workers about that, but I can't help them because it's up to the employer. Still, I think it's terrible that the same pay increase isn't available to everyone. These people are out in the hot sun working hard and having to wear protective glasses, masks or face shields. What they're dealing with is awful.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

I'm being more specific because those do sound like they are on site, and most of those would probably be provincial, but I'm talking more about the requirement to isolate for two weeks before going in to regular work. It does sound like there is some question of value for money and proper monitoring.

The federal government has also stopped audits of employers and is only doing virtual spot checks. Is this failure to do audits exacerbating the problems that we are seeing?

3:30 p.m.

Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

Fernand Thibodeau

Are you asking me?

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

I'm speaking to either one.

3:30 p.m.

Vice-President and Spokesperson, Seasonal Workers Help and Support

Fernand Thibodeau

As I said, seasonal workers are back at work in the plants. Those in the tourism sector are as well. Only those who work in peat production and forestry are not back yet, but I don't know whether they went into isolation to receive the money.

There's no doubt that those working right now haven't been earning their full income, and they've had even fewer pay increases. I also don't know whether they've already received the $1,500.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Monsieur Thibodeau. Thank you, Mr. Albas.

Ms. Douglas, do you have a very brief response?

3:30 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

No, I'm fine, thank you.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Albas.

Mr. Dong is next, please, for six minutes.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Chair.

First of all I want to thank the witnesses for coming to today's committee and giving us their very good suggestions and their observations on both fronts.

Ms. Douglas, first of all I want to thank OCASI for all you've done. I've dealt with OCASI quite a bit in the past in terms of supporting refugees and newcomers. I want to thank you for your advocacy.

Back in March, OCASI posted six recommendations about how to protect all workers, including newcomers and permanent residents, during COVID-19. With the introduction of CERB—and we know that CERB does include international students and foreign workers—there were some changes made to post-graduate work permits and immigration programs. We made quite a number of changes for international students, including allowing them to work full time if they're in an essential service.

In my riding, I've heard that hundreds of new graduates from Seneca are now stepping forward and joining the health care front. Many of those were international students who recently graduated.

How would you assess the early response by the federal government to COVID-19?

3:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

We were very pleased when CERB was announced, especially with how flexible and easy it was for those who qualified. We were also glad that the government listened and then brought more and more international students into it.

The concern that we have is that there are a significant numbers of folks—we were talking about folks with precarious immigration status and those who are undocumented—who have not been able to access CERB.

As you know, OCASI has been having this conversation with every minister we can find, to talk about that and talk about the folks who have been here for many years, folks who have fallen through the gaps for whatever reason and are now undocumented. They've been working in the informal economy, have lost their jobs and have no access to provincial benefits or to income supports like CERB.

As I said in my presentation, there are very many community-based organizations that are trying to raise funds. OCASI itself worked with two foundations—the Atkinson Foundation and the new Mariam Assefa Fund, through World Education Services—to provide some relief to a number of families, particularly in southern Ontario and here in Toronto. Those folks continue to need support.

In terms of the rapid response to CERB, the expansion to ensure that international students were able to get in, the flow of information, although at the front end we had some concerns about the lack of translated information, agencies really stepped up to ensure that the message was being pushed out to communities in whichever way, through various first-language media and those kinds of things, so the uptake for those who qualified was very positive. The folks we're concerned about are those who are continuing, even now, to fall through the cracks because they're not eligible for provincial social assistance and not eligible for federal income supports. Something has to happen there.

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

We also see that recently there were a lot of racist incidents in Canada and the United States, whether it was anti-Black racism, anti-indigenous racism, or anti-Asian racism. Today Angus Reid released a study with some shocking statistics: 61% of the people surveyed have adjusted their routines in order to avoid run-ins or otherwise unpleasant encounters since the COVID-19 outbreak began. The company interviewed quite a few Asian Canadians or Chinese Canadians. Over half are worried that Asian children are going to be bullied when they return to school due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

I know your agency works with a large number of newcomers and immigrants from racialized communities. What kinds of challenges do you think you will face as we slowly recover or reopen the economy, and of course in September, as we hope schools will be reopened for all kids to return? Actually, I worry. I ask this question on behalf of my kids, who are in the public system.

3:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants

Debbie Douglas

With the onset of COVID, we saw sharp increases. Not that anti-Asian racism didn't always exist, but we remember the nipper-tipping nonsense, and hatred that was happening here in Ontario not too long ago. We saw a significant increase in anti-Asian racism, whether people were being physically attacked or called names. Some of our political world leaders have absolutely encouraged those kinds of things, and Canada is not immune to it.

We've also seen a rise in anti-Black racism, and just very blatantly, both in terms of individuals who threaten Black lives all the time, including our security forces, like the police, and in terms of unarmed folks being killed, especially those at the intersection of race and mental health.

As a country, we really need to take this seriously. As the pandemic continues and we begin to slowly reopen and begin to look at some of the economic numbers, especially employment numbers, we know historically that racialized folks, and particularly those who are immigrants and refugees, will begin to be blamed. That's why it is so important for governments at all levels to be proactive in terms of putting out public messages around issues of anti-racism and what that really looks like.

Even more important, what this pandemic has shown is the huge gap that exists because of race and systemic racism. This is a time for governments to be bold, to look at policies that will shift, and move how racialized folks are participating economically and socially. I'm here talking about regularization of status. When we talk about those who are undocumented, the vast majority are racialized folks. When we respond in terms of a regularization program, it is also an anti-racism response.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Dong.

Ms. Chabot, you may go ahead. You have six minutes.