asylum seekers

We need to fast-track applications of asylum seekers on the frontlines

Refugee claimants are working — and in some cases dying — to provide essential services.

A coalition of community groups is asking Quebec and Canada to fast-track applications for asylum seekers who have been working as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of these workers arrived in Canada through Roxham Road at the U.S./Quebec border. While waiting for their applications to be settled, a significant number of refugee claimants, many of them Haitian, got jobs as orderlies in Quebec’s hard-hit CHSLDs and seniors homes. Community leaders like the Maison de l’Haïti, who were instrumental in resettling 5,000 of the 27,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Montreal in the last three years, now want to see these essential workers recognized with a visa.

Many have already had their applications rejected and are facing an uncertain future as they now re-apply on humanitarian grounds. An exceptional program that would acknowledge their service fighting COVID-19 by granting them visas is something that would alleviate their stress, and something that many other countries have already implemented.

In a similar scenario, the Italian government recently decided to give 600,000 migrants the right to stay after they provided essential work during the lockdown.

Even the Pope chimed in, condemning the “harsh exploitation” of migrant farmworkers in Italy, saying, “May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the centre of our concern.” Amen.

Portugal granted migrants and asylum seekers in the country at the time full citizenship rights during the COVID-19 outbreak, so they could have full access to the country’s healthcare system.

A win-win situation

Ultimately, the decision whether to fast-track the applications or not rests with the Canadian government, since asylum seekers are the Immigration and Refugee Board’s responsibility. But it’s also provincial jurisdiction to ensure the needs of asylum seekers are being met and that they’re treated in a dignified and safe manner.

Considering the dire shortages of frontline workers at CHSLDs right now (an accountant like Premier Legault should easily understand the numbers), we need them as much as they need us. The willingness to understand this reciprocity and interconnectedness should not, sadly, be necessary in order for governments to treat asylum seekers with the respect and humanity that they deserve. Regardless of “usefulness,” that simple reality should be nudging the Quebec government to want the feds to fast-track them, too.

I’m unequivocally behind this initiative. It’s ridiculous and unconscionable to have these status-less people risking their lives and dying on the frontlines right now and then send them packing once the danger has subsided. Especially when we are desperate for more healthcare workers.

But while we’re supporting this important initiative, can we please take the conversation further? It’s commendable that we’re seeking to fast-track the asylum requests of frontline workers risking their lives now, but everyone with a precarious status deserves to be safe and treated with dignity regardless of global pandemics.

Everyone deserves protection and safety

It shouldn’t be charity, some sort of concession on our part for a “job well done,” because they proved their good will and usefulness to their new potential country, or because the guilt is seeping in after asylum seekers have died. Treating them with dignity should be the very minimum allocated from one human being to another. They deserve protection and safety, too. It’s not because they’re applying for asylum that they should be in danger or subject to the whims of unscrupulous bosses and companies.

After all, it’s not that complicated to decipher how and why these workers are often the first affected by a virus that easily spreads via contact. Asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are often people living in crowded apartments and homes (because they can’t afford to live alone), many of them living and working together. They often travel long distances to and from work and rarely by car. Most of the time, it’s in collective transport by van or by using public transit.

They work in facilities where the opportunity to get infected is high and where the use of personal protective equipment and protective measures is lacking or severely compromised. They’re not getting sick because they’re not as smart or educated or clean or careful as you. They’re getting sick because they don’t have the privilege of hiding out in their living room working via Zoom tele-conferences or watching re-runs of The Office on Netflix, complaining that their gym won’t probably open before September. That’s me, by the way. I recognize my privilege.

Exploited for our gain

The dirty truth that no one (particularly those who are anti-immigration and like to irrationally complain that the low salaries — which are no fault of their own — being paid to desperate newcomers undercuts their ability to make more money) acknowledges that many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are routinely exploited. They work shitty jobs for shitty wages. And sometimes, like in the case of Marcelin François, they catch COVID and die, leaving behind a wife and three young children to grieve them. And not enough is being done to protect them.

Asylum seekers, refugees, migrants with precarious status, and even new immigrants are often forced to accept and continue to work in jobs with abysmal and unsafe conditions. A survey carried out in 2019 by the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) showed that Montreal’s warehouses routinely exploit a large segment of immigrant workers, forcing them to work overtime, underpaying them and providing them with no safety training. A former warehouse worker said it was “like a slave trade.”

The placement agencies that hire them and send them off to work collect nearly half their wages in commissions. They often have no one looking out for them, are not members of a union and are out there on their own accepting whatever dangerous work conditions forced upon them so they can put food on the table. With or without COVID, these people’s uncertain and precarious migratory status places them in a position of vulnerability, which increases the chances of injury or death on the job.

We rely on so many of these workers for so many things that are vital to our well-being. From caring for our elders and our sick, to growing our fruits and vegetables, to packing the meat and food that ends up on our tables, their work is vital. Yet, the sad truth of the matter is that many of our orderlies, meat-packing employees and farm workers are exploited and often placed in harm’s way.

People deserve living wages for their hard work. And they deserve safe and fair work conditions, regardless of status. And even if, in their desperation, they’re willing to accept these wages and these conditions, they should never have to. We should not be okay with that. And I don’t want to hear arguments about how that would increase the cost of food or whatever products being made, because in most cases, wages constitute a small amount of a company’s operating costs.

Working jobs that we don’t want to do

And I don’t want to hear about how migrant workers lower wages for everyone else. That’s not on them, that’s on the people offering those miserable wages. Neither are migrants “stealing” jobs from us. They usually end up doing the jobs no one else wants to do. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen any lines forming by homegrown Quebecers wanting to work on farms or as orderlies in hospitals and CHSLDs lately. If that were the case, Premier Legault wouldn’t be on TV desperately imploring us to sign up for the help brigade because over 11,000 employees are out of commission.

If we can’t provide these workers with what is the most basic of offerings, we need to rethink a system that relies on desperate people accepting sub-par payment so that we can reap the benefits in subsidized, cheap strawberries and cucumbers or processed meat sold in bulk at Costco. Someone is getting screwed over for you to get that sweet supermarket deal. And just because you’re not seeing it happen doesn’t mean it’s not taking place. Most of this invisible labour is done by people deemed less than us or deserving less than us because they’re in dire straits. It shouldn’t have to be that way and we shouldn’t need a pandemic to remind us. ■

To sign petitions urging the government to fast-track the applications of asylum seekers working on COVID-19 frontlines, you can go here and here.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

For Government of Canada info on Coronavirus / COVID-19, click here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.