ISAC is co-counselling with Niagara North Community Legal Assistance to represent 102 migrant workers who were denied Employment Insurance parental benefits.
Each year thousands of migrant agricultural workers come to Canada on a temporary basis through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). While they perform essential work, these workers have fewer rights than other workers and often work in precarious and dangerous positions. SAWP workers pay into the Employment Insurance (EI) program, but because they are legally obligated to leave Canada at the end of their contract each year, in most cases they are not eligible for regular EI benefits during periods of unemployment. Until recently, they were eligible for EI parental benefits. However, due to barriers such as lack of knowledge about eligibility, misinformation, language barriers, literacy, long work hours in rural locations without access to government offices, it was very difficult for them to apply for parental benefits when they were eligible, or even to have knowledge about their eligibility for parental benefits.
In recognition of these barriers, the EI Board of Referees allowed most applicants to back date their claims for parental benefits. On appeal, the Umpire ruled that none of the migrant workers could access their parental benefits on the basis that they ought to have applied earlier than they did.
ISAC and Niagara North Community Legal Assistance challenged this decision at the Federal Court of Appeal. On November 19, 2013, the Federal Court of Appeal reversed the Umpire’s decision because the Umpire refused to consider the multiple barriers that migrant workers face when considering whether they had a good reason for applying when they did. The Court stated that migrant workers face “unique disadvantages in the Canadian labour market,” including ineligibility for many social benefits, denial of statutory protections enjoyed by other workers, social isolation and fear of employer reprisal and deportation. The Court ordered that each of the cases be reheard.
In the meantime, the federal government has changed the rules about who can access parental benefits and made it much more difficult for migrant workers to qualify. As a result, most migrant workers will no longer be eligible for any employment insurance benefits, even though they pay into the program with each pay cheque.
To see the federal government’s announcement about changes to the employment insurance program, click here: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-eng.do?nid=711069
To see a statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers challenging these changes, click here: http://www.ufcw.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3156%3Astop-the-great-tory-ripoff-of-migrant-workers&catid=6%3Adirections-newsletter&Itemid=6&lang=en