COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes
Popular visions of the Maritime region of Canada show red-sand beaches, wide farmlands, lighthouses, and scenic fishing villages where stacked lobster cages make picture-perfect postcards. Yet the reality for migrant workers coming from abroad to work on local farms and seafood processing plants points to a gap between this image and a much harsher reality.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) developed in the 1970s to address national labour market needs. It initially targeted highly skilled workers such as academics, engineers and business executives. Over the last several decades, the program has evolved towards staffing positions in less skilled employment areas, such as the agricultural and fish processing fields. Although slower than other Canadian regions in adopting this hiring scheme, the Maritime provinces have embraced the TFWP to facilitate the regional fisheries’ transition from family-based to larger corporate enterprises, relying on cheap labour to compete in international markets. About 123,312 temporary foreign workers had entered Canada in 2020, with 7,909 workers entering the Maritime region and 1,725 entering Prince Edward Island (PEI) (ESDC, 2021).
Coordinated between Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS), St. Thomas University (Fredericton, NB) and Cooper Institute (Charlottetown, PEI), the “Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes” partnership is a research and knowledge dissemination platform that documents the social impact of COVID‑19 on the working conditions of temporary foreign workers while paying attention to how access to services and protections for migrants vary across the region.
For the purposes of this grant, the “Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes” partnership aims to: (1) examine the impacts of COVID‑19 on the occupational and living conditions of migrant workers in PEI through interviews with front-line immigrant service providers; (2) identify barriers impeding migrants’ access to permanent residency through interviews with temporary foreign workers who are currently applying or intending to apply for permanent residency; (3) formulate policy recommendations to improve the conditions of migrant workers in the Maritimes; and (4) generate a strategic working alliance between various community stakeholders and local governmental officials to support the adoption and implementation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act in PEI.
Our partnership’s first community report, “Safe at Work, Unsafe at Home: COVID‑19 and Temporary Foreign Workers in Prince Edward Island” (June 2021), revealed the challenges that workers experienced throughout the pandemic as they attempted to gain access to information, services and supports. Participants cited overcrowded housing as a severe and ongoing issue, and described workplace safety violations, long workdays with no overtime pay, lack of paid sick days and reluctance to complain out of fear of being fired. These conditions left workers vulnerable and exacerbated the power imbalance already existing between workers and employers on the Island.
In interviewing service providers, the “Migrant Workers in the Canadian Maritimes” partnership will better understand the barriers migrants face to supports and services, but also some of the challenges faced by service providers in assisting the workers with filling permanent residency applications, renewing work permits and applying for open work permits for vulnerable workers. This research will support the work of Cooper Institute as it advocates for migrants to obtain secure status in Canada. Permanent immigration status is not simply about “being allowed” to stay in Canada. It is about accessing the basic rights and legal protections valued in this country.