The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and COVID-19

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19 November 2021, 8:20 a.m.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the movement of goods and people in and out of Canada, affected the well-being of temporary foreign workers and led to changes in workplace health and safety requirements. These changes have had repercussions for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

This HillNote outlines the measures that the federal government has implemented to help ensure that employers can hire the temporary foreign workers (TFWs) they need while providing a safe working environment for TFWs after they arrive.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program

The TFWP is a temporary labour migration program that assists employers in filling specific labour market gaps when Canadians and permanent residents of Canada are not available. It is an important source of labour for a variety of sectors, including agriculture and food processing.

Under the TFWP, employers have to arrange a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) through Employment and Social Development Canada to ensure that hiring a TFW will have a positive (or neutral) impact on the Canadian labour market. If the LMIA is positive, the TFW can apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for a work permit.

The TFWP has several main streams with diverse requirements and operating procedures, including the low-wage stream, the high-wage stream, the primary agriculture stream (including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, or SAWP), the Global Talent Stream and the caregiver program.

Meeting Labour Needs During COVID-19

Since March 2020, the federal government has implemented measures to facilitate the entry of TFWs into Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certain TFWs, such as those holding valid work permits, were exempted from travel restrictions introduced in March 2020 to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The federal government has also introduced measures to increase flexibility and reduce the administrative burden on employers who rely on the program to meet labour needs. For example:

  • LMIAs for occupations deemed essential during the pandemic are being prioritized for processing.
  • The validity period for LMIAs has been extended.
  • Work permits for the 2021 SAWP season indicate a maximum work duration of nine months, rather than the usual eight, to accommodate quarantine periods.
  • A pilot project launched in August 2021 will provide increased flexibility for Quebec employers hiring TFWs in low-wage positions until December 2023.

Occupational Health and Safety Considerations

The 2021 federal budget noted that TFWs “tend to be racialized, have limited knowledge of English or French, have lower wages, and reside in rural or remote areas while working in Canada.” These and other factors have been recognized as contributing to the vulnerability of TFWs to abusive or exploitative employment situations.

This vulnerability has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Chief Public Health Officer of Canada has identified migrant agricultural workers (largely consisting of men from Latin American and Caribbean countries) as facing disproportionate risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to factors such as crowded on-site housing and fear of reprisals if they report symptoms. Since the beginning of the pandemic, several outbreaks have been reported at workplaces employing TFWs, including meat processing plants and farms. These have contributed to the untimely deaths of several workers.

The federal government has taken a variety of measures to promote a safer work environment for TFWs during the COVID-19 crisis. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it provided temporary funding to help employers cover the costs associated with mandatory quarantine programs (the Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program) and to help food processors and manufacturers implement health and safety requirements related to COVID-19 (the Emergency Processing Fund).

Orders in council made pursuant to the Quarantine Act have established self-isolation and testing requirements for individuals entering Canada. Under the latest order in council – which is in effect until 21 November 2021 – travellers who are fully vaccinated with a vaccine that is authorized in Canada, including TFWs, are not required to self-isolate as long as they are able to provide proof of a pre-arrival COVID-19 molecular test with a negative result. Individuals who do not meet these criteria must self-isolate for at least 14 days upon arriving in Canada.

Employers are expected to facilitate their employees’ self-isolation by, for example, arranging access to food, medicine and other necessities of life. Employers who must provide accommodation under the TFWP, such as SAWP employers, must house quarantining workers separately from others, provide adequate space if workers are quarantining together and supply cleaning materials to ensure adequate sanitation. Employers must also provide information about preventing the spread of COVID-19.

After the mandatory quarantine period, employers and TFWs must continue to follow all public health measures and occupational health and safety requirements. Fines and other penalties may be imposed on those who do not comply.

The federal government announced additional measures on 31 July 2020, including strengthening the employer inspections regime – particularly on farms – and the Emergency On-Farm Support Fund. This fund helped farmers with the cost of direct infrastructure improvements to living quarters and workstations, and other health and safety measures, until 26 February 2021.

In April 2021, the federal budget announced new measures to protect TFWs and monitor employer compliance, building on actions taken to support TFWs during the pandemic. In July 2021, the federal government proposed amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations to address gaps in worker protections for TFWs, including measures to improve access to health care.

Financial and Other Supports for Temporary Foreign Workers

A TFW’s employment period begins upon their arrival in Canada and includes the initial mandatory quarantine. During the quarantine period, the employer is required to pay the worker regular wages for a minimum of 30 hours per week.

Employers hiring through the low-wage and primary agriculture streams may also be required to provide private health insurance coverage until the worker becomes eligible for the provincial/territorial health care plan.

If a worker contracts COVID-19 after the initial quarantine period, they may be eligible for paid or unpaid sick leave, depending on the terms of their employment contract and the applicable employment standards legislation. A new unpaid, job-protected leave related to COVID-19 has been temporarily introduced in federally regulated workplaces, and paid or unpaid leaves related to COVID-19 have been introduced in most provincial jurisdictions.

Finally, if a TFW contracts COVID-19 at work, they may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation regimes vary by province (see, for example, guidelines for TFWs in British Columbia and Quebec). Workers may also be eligible for financial support under the Employment Insurance Act or the Canada Recovery Benefits Act.

Additional Resources

Julie Béchard and Madalina Chesoi, “The Movement of People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World,” HillNotes, Library of Parliament, 28 October 2021.

Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, Library of Parliament, Publication no. 2019-36-E, 16 April 2020.

House of Commons, Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Immigration Programs to Meet Labour Market Needs, Eighth report, June 2021.

Authors: Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, Library of Parliament



Categories: COVID-19, Employment and Labour

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