from Vol. | Issue | FALL 2015

JUSTICE FOR MIGRANT WORKERS

Making Employment Insurance Work

By Chris Ramsaroop

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Earlier this year, a frost destroyed many of Ontario's apple and grape crops. Media attention focused on the plight of the province's farmers, their heroic attempts to save what crops they could, and the impending crisis they faced as a result of the widespread damage.

But there is a silent crisis that has not been addressed by government officials, farmers or the media: the impact of the frost on thousands of farm workers employed in these industries.

Migrant agricultural workers, employed under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program, are crucial to our economy — they keep these industries functioning. And many of these workers have been returning to work at the same farm each year, for many years. Dozens if not hundreds of them were sent home early this spring; others will not even be called to work in Canada this season. The long-standing employment they rely on will not be available this year, and they will be thrown into economic crisis because of it.

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One evening, members of our group, Justicia for Migrant Workers, went to the airport to bid farewell to a group of workers who were flying home early with no money, nothing to provide for their families. With the words they have written, they want to convey a message to you about the impact this economic crisis has had, and will continue to have, on them, and on the people at home who depend on them.

As Canadians, we have developed employment insurance to protect residents during periods of economic uncertainty. Migrants, while working in Canada, have paid millions into Canada's EI system and, during their time of need, should be accorded the same protections that we have.

Employment Insurance is a vital social safety net to counterbalance a precarious labour market. As a matter of fairness, the people who grow our fruits and vegetables, the people who put food on our tables, should not face perpetual impoverishment because of an unpredictable climate. We cannot simply ignore their calls for justice: Do we find it easier to do so because they are "racialized foreign migrant workers"? Do they seem invisible to us for that reason?

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Following are the changes that are necessary so that EI keeps pace with current labour market conditions. We call on the government to:

1. Provide equal access to regular employment insurance benefits for migrant workers through the development of interstate agreements between the governments of Canada and the countries from which migrant workers originate. This access can be modelled on similar agreements that already exist with the United States.

2. Restore migrant workers' access to special EI entitlements including parental, maternity and compassionate benefits.

3. Provide migrant workers with access to training and education during times of unemployment.

4. Improve access to benefits by reducing, in all regions, the time it takes to qualify to 360 hours or 13 weeks, whichever is less.

5. Increase the rate and duration of benefits to at least 60 per cent of earnings using workers' 12 best weeks. Raise the maximum allowable benefit, while eliminating severance-pay allocations and the two-week waiting period.

6. Provide EI income benefits so long as workers are in approved training.

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Migrant farm workers have faced restrictions to accessing employment insurance since the inception of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker (SAWP) program in 1966.

As the legacy of colonialism continues to drive thousands of migrants in search of work, today more and more people must cross borders to find it, a phenomenon that will continue to grow in a world where governments embrace free trade and the free movement of goods and services, and where environmental changes are destabilizing livelihoods and whole societies.

Changes to employment insurance are needed to reflect these realities.


Chris Ramsaroop is a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers(J4MW), a volunteer-run, political non-profit collective that promotes the rights of migrant farmworkers and farmworkers without status. J4MW strives for a movement that is led and directed by workers themselves.


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