The Ontario government is extending health-care coverage and providing financial aid to some 400 migrant workers from Trinidad and Tobago stranded in the province, many in Southwestern Ontario, who can’t return to their home country amid COVID-19 restrictions.
The offshore workers require a travel exemption to return to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, but only a handful have received those exemptions.
“Our government is taking action to help Trinidadian and Tobagonian workers by making funding available to assist farmers in providing housing, meals, winter clothing and other necessities,” Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said in a statement.
Immigrant, Refugees and Citizenship Canada posted a notice to its website on Wednesday stating Canada “continues to discuss solutions with the government of Trinidad and Tobago.”
A temporary public policy, in effect until Feb. 21, 2021, will allow stranded workers to apply for temporary status and get a six-month open work permit, which would allow workers to find other employment or apply for employment insurance.
Provincially, rapid funding is available to employers through the federal-provincial enhanced agri-food workplace protection program.
Eligible expenses include accommodations, meals, winter clothing, heaters, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, communications and transportation costs.
As the federal government extends workers’ status, Hardeman said OHIP coverage also will be extended.
“I want the workers from Trinidad and Tobago to know that they have our appreciation and our support until they can get home,” he said.
Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, a non-profit that helps co-ordinate processing requests for foreign seasonal workers, said the stranded workers are spread out in Ontario, but many are in the Haldimand-Norfolk area.
“I feel for these guys … they can’t get home, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel on when they can,” Forth said. “They’ve been exiled in Canada by their own country.”
He said it’s unclear why some Trinidadian and Tobagonian workers are receiving travel exemptions and others aren’t.
Trinidadian officials require workers to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their flight, which can be challenging, Forth said.
He also said workers are required to fly with Caribbean Airlines and pay an additional fee.
The last flight, which departed Saturday, carried only nine workers, Forth said. The next flight isn’t scheduled until Dec. 22.
The Trinidad and Tobago Consulate General in Toronto did not respond to a request for comment.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a citizen of a country and they say they won’t take you back,” Forth said.
He said his organization could provide charter flights to all 400 workers and have them back home within a week once they receive approval from Trinidad and Tobago.
Forth said the Canadian and Ontario governments providing aid to the stranded workers will help ensure their safety while they await word from their home country, but he doesn’t see an end in sight until Trinidadian officials change their policies.
“That is the biggest issue, the unknown,” he said. “I wish there was something we could do, but there just plain isn’t.”
Advocacy groups had been calling on government aid for the stranded workers for weeks, said Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.
Although the workers will be given temporary benefits, Ramsaroop said the situation illustrates a “fundamental failing” of government migrant worker programs to “provide a social safety net for migrant workers in a time of crisis.”
He advocates for all temporary offshore workers always to have open work permits and be provided permanent resident status.
Schuyler Farms, near Simcoe, employs close to 100 migrant workers from Trinidad and Tobago. Only two have made it home so far.
Owner Brett Schuyler said he has suitable housing for the stranded workers and is making an effort to boost morale, through holiday activities, during the winter.
“We’re just focusing on making the most of the situation,” he said.
The provincial aid offers some sense of relief, Schuyler said, adding there’s been immense support from the community who have donated food and winter clothes for the workers.
He said for some of his workers, particularly those with families back in Trinidad, it’s been “quite devastating” not to return for the holidays.
But Schuyler said some workers are content to stay, for now, concerned that if they return to Trinidad, they won’t be allowed back to Canada next year amid ongoing uncertainty over their country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“They’re worried about their employment for next year,” he said. “If they can’t get back up, they’re euchred.”
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