How will temporary foreign workers be impacted by new travel restrictions?

Toronto Pearson airplane Photo credit: BigStock

With new travel restrictions being imposed on travellers entering Canada, many questions have been raised over the impact it might have on migrant workers coming to work on Niagara’s farms and vineyards.

In addition to providing proof of a negative test result for COVID-19 prior to boarding a flight to Canada, the federal government recently announced that travellers will be required to take a second test when arriving, then quarantine at a hotel for up to three days while awaiting test results — all at the traveller’s expense.

Uncertainty over how the requirements apply to temporary foreign workers is causing concern among farmers about the flow of workers and among worker advocacy groups about a potential financial burden.

“Everything is up in the air, and this adds further anxiety for workers who are simply trying to put food on the table,” said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.

Niagara This Week submitted itemized questions to Transport Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) for this story, addressing restrictions on flights from Caribbean countries and Mexico, asking whether the workers will be subjected to and required to pay for testing and quarantining; when the new measures will practically come into effect; and whether security guards, trained as screening officers under the Quarantine Act, will be responsible for checking workers’ quarantine compliance.

Transport Canada deferred questions to ESDC, whose spokesperson, Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau, responded by saying, in part, that the feds are still looking at how to integrate new requirements for “specific essential groups, like temporary foreign workers,” and the government will “share more information when it becomes available.”

On Feb. 1, the Ontario government began testing all international air travellers entering the province, raising the question of who — the province or the feds — will ultimately be responsible for testing travellers at Toronto’s Pearson airport?

Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.) — the organization that orchestrates flights of migrant workers into Canada — confirmed workers recently arriving at Pearson are being tested.

David Jensen, a provincial Health Ministry spokesperson confirmed temporary foreign workers are not exempt from submitting to a provincial testing requirement, mandated under an order from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.

Testing is completed for all arrivals at terminals one and three at Pearson, Jensen said in an emailed response, and the unspecified cost is covered entirely by taxpayers through the provincial government.

As for who will ultimately be responsible for testing, Jensen said the province is working with Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada on transitioning to a federally mandated program. No timeline was provided.

“All we know is that the workers are allowed to travel,” said Forth, who has been working the phones trying to get answers.

Regularly scheduled international flights were cancelled and replaced with charter flights, which according to Forth, are still allowed to travel to Canada.

Ramsaroop voiced concern over the potential of requiring workers to stay in hotels.

“There’s been a constant pattern since last year of workers not receiving adequate support or resources while quarantining in hotels,” he said.

Government policies, he said, are being developed in a “haphazard” manner and he’s concerned about workers potentially having to shoulder the cost of testing and quarantining.

Ramsaroop said some Mexican workers have already had to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for a test prior to boarding a flight, furthering the burden of deductions from wages later on for things like airfare and utilities.

“We’re indebting the workers prior to arriving in Canada, and we’re also doing these deductions that should be seen as the cost of business, which the employer should be footing,” Ramsaroop said.

“It creates tremendous anxiety on these workers, it puts them at greater stress levels to undertake both the financial cost and this tremendous level of uncertainty.”