Migrant farm workers are challenging Ottawa’s denial of benefits they were eligible for until a recent change in the law.
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Glendon Sanchez thinks about his daughter in Trinidad every day.
The seasonal farm worker, who has been planting and harvesting in southwestern Ontario for more than 14 years, hopes 9-year-old Divine will one day understand why her “da” is away so much.
“There is no work back home, so I come here. I do it for her,” said Sanchez, 37, who works 11-hour days on a Chatham-area fruit farm from late March to early November.
Sanchez’s devotion to Divine is the reason he applied for Employment Insurance parental benefits in 2009, when he first learned about the program and Ottawa’s willingness to accept claims dating back as far as 1990 from migrant workers who didn’t realize they were eligible.
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But despite the lack of a time limit in the legislation and Ottawa’s official willingness to consider claims for children born many years ago, the EI Commission turned him down, saying he waited too long to apply.
Sanchez is among 102 Ontario migrant farm workers who have been denied EI parental benefits since 2008. Their appeals will be heard in federal court in Toronto Oct. 16.
But a win for these workers, whose claims are worth between $3,000 and $8,000, would be bittersweet, his lawyers admit. That’s because a federal rule change last year has all but shut the door on future EI parental claims by migrant workers, even though they continue to pay an estimated $3.4 million in premiums every year.
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“It really feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us,” said lawyer Jackie Esmonde, of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which is working with Niagara North Community Legal Assistance on the appeal.
Workers from the Caribbean and Mexico have been coming to Canada under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program since 1966.
Some of the roughly 24,000 workers employed annually under the program have come every growing season for more than 20 years and have spent more time in Canada than in their home countries, Esmonde noted.
The workers have been largely ineligible for regular EI benefits because they have to return home in the off-season. But until the government changed the rules last December, they were eligible for up to 35 weeks of EI “special benefits” covering maternity, parental and compassionate leave, because there was no residency requirement.
In 2002, groups like Justicia for Migrant Workers, the Agricultural Workers Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers union began spreading the word and helping the workers apply, Esmonde said.
In 2008, however, Ottawa started to deny the backdated claims, and advocates began to build the case for next week’s appeal.
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenny said the government cannot comment on cases before the courts.
But in court documents, Ottawa argues the workers took too long to apply and didn’t show good cause for the delay.
“The onus is on the claimants to demonstrate that they made reasonable attempts to ascertain their rights and obligations,” the government says in its factum.
Ottawa’s move last December to limit all EI benefits to those working in Canada year-round has been a huge setback, Esmonde said.
She and other advocates argue that foreign seasonal workers are crucial to Canada’s agricultural industry and should receive the same employment protections and benefits as other Canadian workers.
“This case keeps the issue in the public eye,” Esmonde said. “We want to continue that conversation, to continue that advocacy, to change that law.”
As for Sanchez, if the case succeeds, he says he will put the money towards Divine’s education.
“She is a very good student,” he said. “We don’t have student loans or anything back home, so this would be for college.”
It would be a small token, he added, to make up for the school concerts, special holidays and birthdays he missed while toiling on her behalf in Canada.
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