By Emily Leedham
“We are invisible, and no one – not the government or society – wants to see or hear us.” said Liliana Trejo, an undocumented worker based in Montreal, at an online press conference today. “If this virus does not kill us, hunger will.”
The press conference was organized on Thursday, April 16, 2020 by the Migrant Rights Network to draw attention to undocumented workers’ demands for support from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several undocumented workers from across Canada in various sectors bravely shared their personal stories.
Trejo spoke in Spanish, with an English translation read after by Karen Cocq, an organizer with the Migrant Rights Network.
“Undocumented people are also human beings, we work we contribute,” Trejo continues. “We clean other women’s houses, we take care of children and old people. We clean offices, hospitals, supermarkets. We work in fields and factories. Our labour is everywhere.”
The Migrants Right Network (MRN) has submitted a letter of demands to the federal government signed by organizations and unions across Canada. The demands include: ensuring workers who do not have Social Insurance Numbers, or whose Social Insurance Numbers have expired, be granted access to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and other federal income supports.
Other MRN demands include access to healthcare, worker protections such as paid sick days, an end to detentions and deportations and permanent status for all migrant and undocumented workers.
You can sign the full list of demands here.
“All of us in Canada, even if we’re not migrants, need to ensure income support for people without a valid Social Insurance Number,” Hussan Syed, Executive Director of the Migrant Rights Network, said during the press conference. “We all need it now. We need it for everyone’s health. Everyone’s life is at stake. Swift action to correct course is necessary and entirely possible. We do not have a minute to lose.”
“These are Essential workers that keep out economy working at all times, especially in times of crisis, and yet are being left out of the supports that are being provided by the federal government,” added Cocq. “And so what we are here demanding is if workers are deemed essential that they be provided all the essential supports, just like all other workers, that are necessary to protect their health, their income, their livelihoods and their families.
Workers abused by immigration system
Many workers shared experiences of having their work permit renewals either being delayed, being denied with no explanation, or being defrauded thousands of dollars by people falsely claiming to be immigration lawyers.
Danilo has worked in Alberta since 2009, but has been undocumented for the past three years.. He was first hired as a Temporary Foreign Worker at a company providing cleaning services to the University of Alberta. He has since worked other jobs and applied for Permanent Residency in 2015. In 2016 he was granted an open work permit for one year. In January 2017, he says the open work permit was not renewed without any clear explanation.
“I left my family and my two lovely daughters. They are the reason why I’m here in the first place,” he shared. “Last time I saw them was in 2013. It’s been seven years since the last time I saw them. They are now 10 and 19 – and I miss them.”
After his permit was denied, he made the hard decision to stay in Alberta as an undocumented worker.
“I want to make sure that my daughters be able to live and go to school. I have no future back home. I have already invested so much here,” he said.
“From 2009 – 2017, I diligently paid my taxes. I am a good Albertan. I volunteer in different organizations to help in the community and I wanted to prove that I belong here. I deserve to be here, I have done nothing wrong.”
Laura Lopez is an undocumented worker from Mexico based in Vancouver. Her and her husband both worked in construction, but when they had children, she stayed home to take care of them. They pursued Permanent Residency, but were defrauded thousands of dollars by someone claiming to be an immigration lawyer.
Now, her husband is only getting a few shifts a week. In addition to the fear of him being exposed to COVID-19 and coming in and out of the house regularly, they are concerned about possible eviction.
“We have had talks with our landlords already, but they say that we still have to pay rent if we will want to still live here,” she says. “It’s too much stress for us, feeling like the worst nightmare…to have no resources to provide to your kids.”
While deportations of undocumented workers has been halted temporarily, Syed notes, police are still arresting and detaining undocumented workers in detention centres, which increases the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission.
This is why the Migrant Rights Network is also calling for the federal government to issue Individual Tax Numbers where information is not shared with immigration authorities for workers who do not have Social Insurance Numbers.
“Many undocumented workers work on the front lines in this crisis, putting themselves at risk, working in essential services without any rights or protections,” Trejo implores. “It is time that we be counted and be treated with the importance and respect we deserve as part of this society. It is time for the government to regularize us and give us all status.”