After catching COVID-19 in a massive outbreak that killed his bunkmate and losing his job for raising safety concerns, Gabriel Flores Flores thought he’d found reprieve. He had won a reprisal ruling against his former employer at Ontario’s labour board, and received an open work permit for migrant workers who experience abuse.
Now, having saved for three months to visit his wife and children over Christmas, he is stranded in Mexico. It puts him at risk of losing his new job in Canada as he and other low-wage migrant workers struggle to navigate new international travel restrictions.
“It’s a situation of total chaos,” said Karen Cocq of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
For Cocq, the new dilemma highlights flaws in the migrant worker program itself: while an open work permits acted as an escape valve, Flores is now once again in limbo.
“It doesn’t fundamentally change workers’ temporary immigration status,” she said. “It’s non-renewable, and it doesn’t give workers any access to permanent residency.”
Flores went home in December after eight months of separation from his family in Mexico. Last year, he worked at a Norfolk County farm, Scotlynn Growers, where 200 workers, including Flores, tested positive for COVID-19. His bunkmate, Juan Lopez Chaparro, died of the virus.
After flagging safety concerns, Flores was fired and told he would be sent back to Mexico. He left the farm with the help of a local community member, and successfully filed a reprisal claim against his former employer. He also successfully applied for a one-year open work permit available to migrant workers who have documented abuse.
“When I was in Canada (last year), I had a lot of stress,” he told the Star.
Flores returned home in December to help his wife care for their two children and his mother, who has disabilities, until his new job in Canada resumed on March 1.
Then, his return flight to Toronto was cancelled after AeroMexico suspended travel to Canada. Canadian airlines have also temporarily halted flights to Mexico and the Caribbean.
“(My employers) have said they can’t make any guarantees that they can hold a job for me,” said Flores.
Migrant workers coming to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) are now being placed onto charter flights, said Cocq.
But Flores lost his spot on the program after being fired by Scotlynn. The only option he has found to get back to Canada is a 36-hour flight via Bogota, Colombia, costing more than $2,000.
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said despite flight cancellations, “workers can still arrive on charters or through connecting flights from other countries.”
Flores says he understands that his one-year open work permit means assuming certain costs: if he were still a SAWP worker his accommodation in Canada would be covered by his employer, as would half his travel expenses.
But Flores also believes that had it not been for flaws in the program itself, last year’s chain of events may never have occurred.
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SAWP workers’ right to be in Canada is tied to working at a single employer. Dependence on that employer for wages, shelter and transportation creates a “power imbalance” that makes workers like Flores “particularly vulnerable,” the labour board said in its decision on his termination last year.
“The COVID crisis on farms last year was caused by risks workers were exposed to here, risks against which they could not protect themselves … because of their temporary status,” said Cocq.
While his open work permit enables him to work anywhere for a period of a year, it does not grant Flores permanent residency.
According to the Canadian government’s website, temporary foreign workers can enter the country on their open work permit if they have an active job contract.
But those planning to find work when they get here are classified as travelling for “non-essential” purposes and are barred from coming to Canada.
All travellers arriving in Ontario by air are now being tested at the airport. But migrant workers must also be tested in Mexico within 72 hours of boarding their flight to Canada.
The rules are causing confusion and additional costs, said Cocq.
In an interview with the Star, one current SAWP worker who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal said he spent around $630 on travel expenses before even leaving Mexico.
The worker said he first tried to come to Canada in early January, taking a 13-hour bus ride to Mexico City. Unaware that he needed a COVID test before departure, he was turned away at the airport. He said he borrowed money to travel back to his rural home, pay for a $100 COVID test, and come back to the capital later in the month.
The testing policy not only downloads costs on to migrant workers, but also increases their risk of exposure to the virus, said Jenna Hennebry, a member of the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group, and director of Laurier University’s International Migration Research Centre.
“The testing is done through private testing clinics, and they are not typically accessible in rural areas,” she said. “Transportation is a challenge in Mexico, particularly for lower-income folks.”
Flores, who lives in a rural area outside Mexico City, said getting a COVID test will cost him an estimated $200.
Even if he finds a flight and doesn’t lose his job, Flores worries that he will have to pay for a hotel quarantine — another expense that he cannot afford.
“My family depends on me and depends on the income that I earn in Canada,” he said.
“The government said last year that they were going to do something for migrant workers. And it doesn’t seem like they have.”
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering work and wealth for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz
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