Sept. 11 marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Syed Hussan, Executive Director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, is the first in a series of interview transcripts that will run this week and next. You can read the full series here. Transcripts have been edited for clarity.


First Policy Response: To start off with, one of the overall lessons that’s been coming up over and over again since the pandemic started is the idea of which workers are really the most essential to our economy and our society and whether they’re being compensated and supported as such. Can you comment on that in the context of migrant workers?

Syed Hussan: COVID-19 has exposed existing inequalities and exacerbated them. And what we’ve seen is that the people who are most essential are also the ones who are the most excluded. Our communities who are migrants, refugees, undocumented people, have faced enormous barriers getting health care and emergency income support, while at the same time, those who had to keep working have done so in inhumane conditions where we have walked into a human rights catastrophe: 1,300 farm workers are sick [with COVID-19] just in Ontario. We have seen undocumented families choosing to sell off their life savings, put off life-saving surgeries, get out of school, just to be able to pay for basic life essentials. And we have seen that this is an economy that ensures profit for the few while excluding the many.

And it’s not just workers who are in waged work who are essential. The people who are essential to taking care of families at home, the ones who are engaged in unwaged work of all kinds, whether that’s protecting the community, or artists, have also been left asunder.

We say, “We are all essential.” It’s not just the health-care worker or even the supermarket worker, but also the person who grows the food, the person who cleans the back of the restaurant. The one who drives your food to you in your Uber. And almost all of them, particularly in large metropolitan cities, are migrant refugees, undocumented people and [people on] study and work permits.


FPR: To go back to the very basics, how are migrant workers defined?

We use the term migrant workers to define all people in the country without permanent resident status who are part of the working class. So low-waged workers, undocumented study-permit holders, work-permit holders – if you are engaged in work or you’re part of the working class and you are not a permanent resident, then you are a migrant worker. So one in 23 people in the country, or over 1.6 million people, are in this situation. That’s the most conservative estimate. And many of those people were excluded from universal health care, even COVID-19 testing and treatment. Many were not able to get any emergency support. And when they spoke back or stood up against unsafe working or housing conditions, they faced reprisals, which included termination, homelessness, either the threat of deportation or actual deportation, as well as being blacklisted so that they’re not able to return to the country.

And all of this is a direct result of an immigration system that has created multiple tiers of citizenship. To have a fair society, you must have equal rights. And the only way to guarantee equal rights is to have equal citizenship status in a country. And without it, when one in 23 people are in some level of exclusion, they are not able to protect themselves.

And that’s really what this is about. Because COVID-19 has required you and I to make decisions: Where do we go? Where do we not go? When do we work? When do we not work? When do we wear a mask? When do we not? We are protecting ourselves. The federal government, by denying over a million and a half people immigration status, has taken away their ability, their autonomy, their self-determination to protect themselves, and in a public health pandemic, that’s fatal.


FPR: And we’ve seen how that’s been fatal especially in the migrant farm worker communities, right?

Yes. There has been incredible and important focus on migrant agricultural workers. . . . There is a renewed interest in fundamental questions of who grows your food, and are you OK with eating an Ontario pepper, or drinking a glass of Ontario wine, or eating an Ontario peach or an Ontario asparagus, all of which, in producing, workers did die?

Migrant farm workers – and generally workers are who are on tied work permits, or who are undocumented – have a fundamental challenge where, in addition to the immigration law denying them status, it also ties them to their employer. So migrant farm workers are indentured labour. They can only work for the employer listed on their permit. They must live in employer-provided housing, which are bunk houses where people have to climb on top of each other simply to go to sleep. We have seen labour intensification, where employers are making workers work harder, longer hours for lower wages. Also restrictions on mobility – workers not being able to leave the farms, unable to send money home to their families, so we are actually exporting the injustices here and making them a global phenomenon. Canada is actually worsening the lives and livelihoods, not just of families here, but migrants are infinitely connected to social relations around the world. There are people around the world who rely on remittances. And so if those people are not able to work, not able to come into the country – which has happened after the border closure – or not able to send money home because the employee simply won’t let them leave the houses, as happened also with domestic care workers. . . . People weren’t allowed off the farms to buy food, and employees would drop off a loaf of bread to 11 people for the week, or a bag of potatoes, during the quarantine period. People didn’t get any income support. . . .

This is a national story because migrant farm workers took brave risks to publicly share what they were experiencing. But we need to also understand that there are millions of other people that did not get the same kind of attention, including domestic workers, undocumented people, refugees, grocery store workers. We heard about the grocery store workers, but what about the cleaners? We heard about the long-term care workers, but what about the security guards at those places?


FPR: You spoke a little bit earlier about the idea of creating equality in citizenship. How would you see that working? Or what would be ways to help bring that in?

The fundamental call of all migrant-led bodies in the country is full and permanent immigration status for all. That is to say, regularize everyone in the country today who doesn’t have permanent resident status, and then ensure that each year the people who arrive from outside the country do so with permanent resident status – a single-tier immigration system.

In the year 2000, there were approximately 60,000 temporary permits [for temporary foreign workers] issued in the country; in the year 2018, that was closer to half a million. I’m not saying the year 2000 was good, but I’m saying that we have created, fundamentally, a system of permanent temporariness with the attached notion of limited rights, lower wages, worsening work conditions. And this doesn’t serve anyone’s interest. It doesn’t serve the provinces’ interest to have a large group of people outside of the health system, outside of the education system, out of the social welfare net, or to have to create new policies and regulations – to change your existing health systems to say, ‘Now we will also allow access to such-and-such new category of person that has been invented.’

The switch to temporary immigration is not so much that there are different or new people coming. It is that people have been framed as a new category of a person in a way that allows for their exploitation. So our fundamental ask is full and permanent immigration status for all right now, not as a long-term vision, but an immediate, pragmatic, essential switch to even begin to engage with the question of what fairness looks like.


FPR: It won’t be a surprise to you that there are a lot of people who say we’re already bringing in too many people when the government has added billions of dollars to the deficit to try and cope with COVID-19. What’s your argument to that view that we can’t bring that many people in on a permanent resident basis?

They’re already here. They’re already here. What does it mean that we can’t let them in? They’re here. They work here, they access health care, they drive on the roads, they pay taxes – most of them, not all. Many of them have families. This idea that we cannot do it – we do, in fact.

And even more so, the question to ask is, do you believe that your food must be grown by an indentured workforce? Because, in fact, the vast amount of food produced in Canada, the significant majority is done by migrant farm workers. And how do we feel about the fact that this is the 53rd year of the [Seasonal Agriculture Workers] Program? That for half a century, this country has fed itself on indentured labour? And not just that, Canada is now the world’s [fifth] largest exporter of food. So it is a massive agri-industry behemoth. Most of the food that’s grown here is exported. So Canada manages to compete in the world market off the backs of Black and brown men and women.

Similarly, who do people think work in the Amazon warehouse or the Dollarama warehouse? Or who drives the trucks? This is a logistics-based economy, truck drivers run society, and the vast majority of truck drivers are also migrant and undocumented.

We have this austerity mindset where it’s like, “The deficit is too high, we’ve spent too much.” The vast amount of that money went to whom? It went to the big businesses and the profiteers, not to our people. There’s the privatization of the entire system. You see these huge buildings emerging on every post-secondary institution. Where is all of this construction money coming from? Migrant students. You think about, the only real way to get permanent residency in Canada is to have a job. And that means private actors. Businesses, in this selection of workers, are determining who gets to have full rights. So I think people are misinformed or miseducated because it is important and crucial that those of us with the least amount of resources fight each other for scraps, so that we do not turn our attention to the fundamental injustices of our economic system.


FPR: Do you see there being a pathway right now to try and get permanent residency for people who are coming into the country as migrant workers?

I think it is clear to our members that they are willing to fight. And I think that they must, and that is what the path is. Migrants are organizing. Just this last Sunday [Aug. 23], we had demonstrations in 11 cities for our [third day of action] of our national campaign for Status for All. We had 14,000 migrant and undocumented people log in at the same time to watch, to give you a sense of the scale. People who are facing detention and deportation, undocumented people, are speaking publicly, unmasked, at all of these events. It is clear that our people are ready, they’re organized, they have clear leadership protocols and they have a clear ask.

I think it is essential for everybody else to step up. And I think the most important way to do that is not to support migrants, but to actually organize in their own sectors. We need people organizing at every layer of society because we cannot return to the old normal. COVID-19 was the fast death, before was the slow death, but it has always been death. And I don’t mean that as hyperbole – every year, thousands of people who are undocumented, who are shut out of health care, because they cannot afford life-saving surgeries, die. We deal with funerals where no one can claim the body, even though they have family members, because they don’t have the money to get their bodies out. This happens here. And it happens not at a small scale – like we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people. So I think that’s the path to change.

And I think that also it is extremely clear to more and more people in general, you cannot have a fair society without equal rights. I think the question is, what do we do about it? And I think we are seeing – whether it’s tenants refusing to be evicted, whether it is homeless people setting up encampments, whether it is people marching on the streets for Black lives – what pulled us out of our homes in a public health pandemic was the mass and continuous exploitation and murder of Black people, particularly at the hands of police, but an overall racist system, which includes the exploitation of Black refugees. It includes the exploitation of Caribbean men who are farm workers, who are the ones doing backbreaking labour and indentured work to feed us. So absolutely, I think we are seeing another wave of mass organizing that must just continue.


FPR: In terms of policy, what do you think needs to be done to try to bring in permanent residency or to enhance rights more generally for migrant workers?

It would be very easy to regularize everyone. It would be easier than almost every other proposal on the table because there is an existing system. So when we talk about expanding rights to migrants, we’re actually saying we must change the infrastructure of our existing rights regime, our regulatory policy jurisdiction regime, our method of inspections, complaints processes, to adapt to the fact that people have been transformed into a new category of person that is excluded from basic rights. That is what temporary or undocumented or refugee migration is. It is simply a way of excluding people from existing rights regimes. So regularization is actually a very simple process.

And we see it. Just a few weeks ago, the federal government announced a regularization program for about a thousand health workers who are asylum claimants. A year before, they announced a regularization program for 500 undocumented construction workers. So you see how easy it is to do this. Fundamentally, there’s no policy reason to have a multi-tier system of immigration. It’s not efficient, it’s not effective. But it does serve the interest of employers who want to have an exploitable workforce. It serves the interest of educational institutions to have a group of people that pay three times the tuition fees.

There’s an industry that says we must look at minor reforms. There’s this idea that we must balance competing interests. There are no competing interests. It doesn’t serve anybody’s interest to have a multi-tiered system, except a very small group of people whose interests are well-served. If we’re saying, “Hey, employers want an exploitable workforce and people want basic rights and how do we pick between them?”, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.


FPR: The federal government has brought in a few changes so far. They had the AgriFood Pilot project. How would you assess what the governments have done so far to respond to the needs of migrant workers during the pandemic?

The AgriFood immigration pilot program was passed about a year ago. It was designed in years prior. It was just launched during COVID-19 as sort of a PR move to show that action was being taken. The AgriFood immigration pilot program excludes all seasonal workers, which is the vast majority of farm workers. It also excludes all workers in Quebec. It requires workers to pass an English or a French test and to have educational requirements that they won’t have. It requires them to have a guaranteed job letter from their employer, which immediately gives all the power to the employers. And it’s restricted to 2,750 applicants a year. It ensures a two-tiered system.

All pathway-to-PR [permanent residency] programs say that you must spend basically a certain period of time in being exploited, and then you may be able to eventually get full rights. That’s what a path to permanence basically means – it says you must accept a period of exploitation. Our members say there’s no path to PR, it’s just a minefield. And I think that anybody who even says the word “the path to permanency” or “path to citizenship” is actually falling into this notion that we accept the dehumanization of people. I mean, at what point, how many deaths and how much sickness and how much exploitation is acceptable? And then the question is, whose interest does it serve? I don’t think anybody wants to eat a pepper wondering if someone died growing it.


FPR: You mentioned healthcare and education, which of course are provincial issues. Is there anything outside of the federal government and the immigration system that you’d like to see other levels of government bring in to support these workers?

I think again, at the simplest level, it is the real and de facto access to existent rights. You cannot get health care if you’re migrant or documented, full stop. All agricultural workers in Ontario are excluded from the five basic labour laws: minimum wage, overtime pay, hours of work, unionization and breaks. It so happens that the majority of those workers happen to be migrant.

There’s a very simple notion of a sanctuary city that undocumented people have been fighting for, in the context of the U.S. where cities have a lot more power over education, healthcare, fire services, policing services, etc. In the context of Canada, we need sanctuary provinces who say, “Everyone who lives here, migrant or undocumented, will have the same access to rights and services. And we will not coordinate with federal immigration enforcement.” Right now, an administrative assistant at a school who asks for your passport and your ID documents becomes a border officer. The health clinic worker, the hospital practitioner, they become a border worker. When a police officer stops you, pulls you over, checks your driver’s license. The border is actually not just at the edges of the country – it is inside, and it is immigration laws executed by provincial bodies in their process of denial of services. And so what provinces need to do is to ensure equal access.

So for example, migrant farm-worker housing is one example, or domestic worker housing. They’re living in employment-provided housing, but they’re not covered under the Ontario tenant protections. They’re also not under employment standards. Both those regimes exclude them. So at the simplest level, full and actual, real access to all rights, protections and services that other people enjoy, including universal access to health care, full and free access to education, full access to all social assistance programs and housing.


FPR: These issues aren’t new, but there has been new attention on them since the pandemic started. So what has that been like for people like you who have been advocating for migrant workers in Canada?

I think we have this notion of the attention economy. . . . Yes, there is a particular subsection of non-migrant, non-immigrant, mostly white, mostly middle-class people consuming these stories for short and brief moments, that are being fed to them. For us, we are invested in building up people power. So what has meant is that migrants and undocumented people’s voices are being heard. So we are trying consistently to ensure that migrant-documented strength and courage and determination is being adequately represented on these platforms and mechanisms. And by and large, that has not happened. You’ve heard stories about victimhood, about debilitating conditions and worsening situations, and not about people refusing to allow that to happen to themselves. So I think much of the attention is not representing migrants as full human beings, but rather as people who are subjected to exclusions and violence, who must be protected. But what we’ve been seeing is, just as one example, 1,000 migrant farm workers left a voicemail for Prime Minister Trudeau speaking their mind. We asked 200 of our members to take a photo with the words “Status for All,” and we posted it all around PM Trudeau’s office. Over 50 of them were unmasked. In every city, once a month, June, July, August, we have had a demonstration where people have just refused [to cover their faces]. They can literally be grabbed from these protests and put into a van and put it on a plane, but they are choosing not to. So I think that’s what this is doing. The crisis is showing us that people are organizing and that it is our task to support it.


FPR: What’s next for you over the next few months?

Sept. 23 is the Throne Speech, and so we would like to see the NDP, which has the opportunity to extract concessions from the existing government, to demand status for all. And we would like to see the Liberals introduce a full and comprehensive regularization program. We are in this moment where the sitting government has said, “Well, we didn’t know COVID-19 was coming when we got this mandate, so we’re going to go into backrooms and we’re going to come out with a plan and then we’ll just go ahead and implement it.” And we are going to be focused on first, fighting to get our interests represented in the Throne Speech. And in either case after that, making sure that it is in the halls of Parliament from that day forth when Parliament returns.

But at the same time, I work for a national body. We are in 10 provinces with 40 organizations; there are students and work-permit holders. And so there’s many, many other interesting campaigns. Just as one example, migrant students are currently organizing because, if you’re on a post-graduate work permit, if you’ve graduated from a post-secondary institution, you have to complete 12 months of work – at minimum 12 months, usually 24 months – to get enough points to get permanent resident status. It has to be continuous work. Now during COVID-19, people lost work and wages, so they’re not able to apply for permanent residence status, and those work permits are nonrenewable. So we’re going to see another wave of people becoming undocumented. In other cases we’re seeing, for example, people in Alberta fighting for access to health care, people in Nova Scotia for access to health care. So there are many, many other projects that are under way.

But not just that – migrants are organizing on a farm to fight with the boss to make sure that they get adequately paid. Or, during COVID-19, almost every post-secondary educational institution increased its international tuition fees by a significant amount. And so there are multiple campaigns under way by students to try and lower tuition, because in a moment that not only they but their families back home also lost work and wages as a result of the crisis, they’re being asked to pay more.

So, many things are under way, but our national focus will be on the Throne Speech. And then after the return of Parliament, we’ll call for full and permanent immigration status for all. On the 20th of September, we are organizing days of action across the country where we’ll be calling on people to take to the streets, so as to make sure that when the prime minister is reading out of his Throne Speech, it is very clear whose interests he represents and whose voices he doesn’t.