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Same EI premiums, no benefits for seasonal farm workers: study

Foreign workers brought to Canada for seasonal farm employment are seeing no employment insurance (EI) benefits for what they and their employers pay into the EI program, a union study shows.

While the workers — who come to Canada for specific jobs and are shipped home at the job’s end — don’t usually qualify for regular EI benefits, a recent shift in EI rules has also largely cut them off from the suite of EI “special benefits,” such as parental, maternal and “compassionate care” benefits, the study finds.

The study, released Thursday by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, estimates workers participating in the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) paid $8.996 million in EI premiums in 2012, while their employers are estimated to have paid in $12.584 million that year, for a total of $21.58 million.

On average, a SAWP worker paid EI premiums of $314.66 in 2012, while his or her employer, on average, paid in $440.18 per worker, according to the union’s report.

SAWP workers have “historically” been excluded from collecting regular EI benefits, UFCW said in its report, as per a previous interpretation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that found SAWP participants are not considered to be “capable of and available for work and (are) unable to obtain suitable employment.”

That interpretation, UFCW said, stands even though SAWP workers’ “migratory status” and conditions imposed by the program which “force these workers to leave the country at the end of their contracts.”

Starting in 2003, however, “migrant advocates” and support centres run by the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) began informing SAWP workers of their rights to special EI benefits and filing EI applications on their behalf, UFCW said. “This helped SAWP participants recover a fraction of the benefits that they had been paying for since 1966.”

“Ripping off”

But on Dec. 9, 2012, the federal department then known as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) announced a “discreet reform” to EI regulations, UFCW said.

While the amended regulation didn’t specifically exclude SAWP workers from EI coverage, it now requires applicants to have a valid work permit and social insurance number to collect special benefits.

The department, now called Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), said in a statement Friday the regulation was amended to ensure said benefits can “only be claimed by individuals who are authorized to remain in Canada.”

That regulation, ESDC noted, has since been expanded to include the special benefit for parents of critically ill children (PCICs).

The amended regulation, however, “did not exclude temporary foreign workers from the Employment Insurance regime,” UFCW noted.

Thus SAWP workers, the union said, “will continue to be forced to pay into (the EI) program at the same rate as Canadian workers and permanent residents, without having full access to regular and special benefits.”

The EI reform, the union said, “violates the principles of fairness and consistency by ripping off the rights of a vulnerable, precarious, and already disenfranchised workforce.”

“Once again, the Conservatives are denying workers benefits that they’ve paid for,” the federal opposition New Democrats’ employment and social development critic, B.C. MP Jinny Sims, said in a separate release.

SAWP workers, she said, “make valuable contributions to Canada’s economy, and we must ensure that they have access to decent living conditions and are protected from abuse.”

“Insurable employment”

ESDC, in its statement Friday, said the change to the EI program was meant to strengthen the principle that “EI is to provide temporary income support to facilitate transitions back into the Canadian labour market.

“Providing EI benefits to workers who are not authorized to remain in Canada is inconsistent with this principle.”

All individuals employed in Canada, including temporary foreign workers authorized to be in Canada, are able to collect EI benefits provided they meet the eligibility criteria, the department noted in its statement. EI regular benefits can be paid to individuals “who work the required number of hours, who are available for and ready to work, but cannot find employment.”

Temporary foreign workers “who hold a valid work permit and are employed under a contract of service in insurable employment” are required to pay EI premiums, ESDC added.

SAWP allows eligible farms to hire temporary foreign workers from Mexico or 11 “participating countries” in the Caribbean to come to Canada for a maximum duration of eight months, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15. Farms must able to offer the workers a minimum of 240 hours of work within a period of six weeks or less.

To qualify for SAWP, employers’ production must be in “specific commodity sectors” and the temporary workers they hire “must work on the farm in primary agriculture.” — Network

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