Hundreds of migrant workers expect to be stranded in Canada over Christmas

TORONTO — Each of the past 33 years, Chanderbose Mahadeo has spent six months in Canada, working at a farm to earn a living for himself and his family in Trinidad and Tobago.

Six months performing difficult, demanding work that most Canadians don’t want to do. Six months away from his children and grandchildren.

This year, though, is different.

“Normally we come up in April and we leave in October, but this year we don’t know when we’ll be going home,” Mahadeo told CTV News on Monday.

Harvest season is long over, meaning there’s no longer any reason for Mahadeo to remain in Canada – in fact, based on his employment contract, he’s supposed to be out of the country already.

But as has happened to so many others this year, Mahadeo’s life has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Trinidad and Tobago has imposed strict travel restrictions to try and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus on the islands, including banning all commercial flights.

The government has organized some repatriation flights, although word of them hasn’t always trickled down to individual farms and workers.

That’s starting to change. Mahadeo learned on Tuesday that he has been booked on a flight for Dec. 28. Now, though, there’s a new difficulty: obtaining the required negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of takeoff, over the Christmas holiday period.

“I can’t enjoy Christmas, knowing they’re sitting here in the bunkhouse and they’re not home with their families,” Ray Ferri told CTV News on Monday.

Ferri is the co-owner of a farm near Collingwood, Ont. where Mahadeo and five other Trinidadians are longtime farmhands. This year, the group’s usual April arrival was delayed because of issues leaving Trinidad and Tobago during the pandemic. When they finally made it to Canada in July, they had to quarantine for two weeks before they could go out into the fields.

The federal government is allowing the workers caught in this situation to apply for extended open work permits at no cost. This will allow them to apply for employment insurance – providing them an income they don’t have now that harvest season is over – and access health care. It also gives them more options when it comes to finding work outside the farm, although a lack of transportation means there are few feasible options.

Four of the six workers at Ferri’s farm, including Mahadeo, are still hoping to get home and spend time with their families before returning in 2021. All four are booked on the Dec. 28 repatriation flight.

“We don’t want … EI. We don’t want to renew our visas. We want to go home,” Mahadeo said.

“I’m missing out on everything in life.”

In the midst of the pandemic, there isn’t much life to speak of for the workers. At Ferri’s farm, they’re sharing a bunkhouse – and distractions such as walking, cooking and watching TV can only last for so long.

“We haven’t been doing anything – we’re just here, sitting,” Ronald Scepture, a nine-summer veteran of the farm, told CTV News on Monday.

Even if a flight is arranged last-minute and word does trickle down to the workers or their employers, there’s another complication: A requirement to have a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before the departure time.

Diane French, who owns a farm near Shelburne, Ont., is also concerned about what new hurdles next year might bring, and what that will mean for the future of farms like hers.

Her main crop is rhubarb, which grows inside over the winter. When harvest time rolled around in April, with no Trinidadian workers in the country, she had to recruit local students with little to no farming experience. Three-quarters of this year’s crop never made it out of the ground.

“If we weren’t able to get these workers from Trinidad, or from any country, we may as well sell the farm. We cannot get Canadian workers,” she told CTV News on Monday.

“We’re farmers, we say ‘OK, next year will be better’ … but how many more next years can we say?”

There are approximately 400 migrant workers from Trinidad and Tobago still in Canada long after they had expected to return home, living on farms in Ontario and Alberta. Even if the plane is full on Dec. 28, 260 of them will remain stranded in Canada.

The isolation is difficult. The cold weather is new and unexpected. And with Christmas only days away, frustration and anger are setting in.

“I’m not home with my wife, not home with my son,” Scepture said.

“Our government has literally abandoned us.”

Their exasperation is shared by their employers, who say they’re worried about the mental health of workers they’ve known, in some cases, for decades.

“They’ve got a place to live, warm clothes, food – but as for their mental well-being, we can’t help them there. They’re stranded,” Ferri said.

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