Two organizations are banding together to argue a case before the Federal Court of Appeal in Toronto that over one hundred seasonal agricultural workers were wrongly denied Employment Insurance (EI) parental benefits.
The case, scheduled for next Wednesday, October 16, will be argued by the Income Advocacy Security Centre and the Niagara North Community Legal Assistance that these seasonal workers have rights like other contributors to the employment insurance program.
In 102 applications currently before the Federal Court of Appeal, seasonal agricultural workers are challenging the denial of their parental benefit applications. All of these workers made EI contributions – for over 15 years in some cases – and are otherwise entitled to the parental benefit. They have shown that they faced many barriers that prevented them from submitting their applications for benefits at the time their children were born.
Seasonal agricultural workers have been coming to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) since 1966 to plant and harvest the food that Canadians need.
The argument will focus on the fact that seasonal agricultural workers, most of whom are from the Caribbean and Mexico, have been making contributions to EI with every paycheque and they have paid tens of millions of dollars into the EI fund. However, because they are required to leave the country at the end of their work contract each year, they cannot qualify for most EI benefits. To qualify for regular EI benefits, workers generally have to be living in Canada during the period of their unemployment in order to be “ready and available” for work.
“Special benefits”, like maternal, parental and compassionate benefits, are the only exceptions. Parents caring for newborn children do not have to be in Canada to be eligible for EI parental benefits, as they are not expected to be “ready and available” for work. Seasonal agricultural workers who returned to their home countries at the end of their contracts and were caring for newborn children were eligible for parental benefits, a release from Income Advocacy Security Centre (IASC) states.
“This was not known until around 2002 due to the numerous barriers that prevent these vulnerable workers from accessing EI: they work in rural and remote locations; they work long hours with difficult working and living conditions; they are under constant threat of deportation if they try to enforce their rights; many face language and literacy barriers. Most seasonal agricultural workers were not aware they qualified for parental benefits until allied groups like the Agricultural Workers’ Alliance (AWA), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) began outreach efforts to help workers to apply,” it adds.
The IASC states that initially, the applications were granted, even when they were submitted late. “But in 2008, EI began to deny most applications, stating that the workers applied “too late.” But there is no deadline for applying for EI, as long as a worker can show that they had a good reason for not applying earlier. Because of all the barriers they face, these workers can show that they could not have applied earlier.”
On December 9, 2012, the government of Canada changed the law to make it even harder for migrant workers to access EI special benefits. Now migrant workers can only access parental, maternity and compassionate benefits during the period covered by their work permit. In other words, they cannot access the parental benefit when they most need it: when they are unemployed and caring for a newborn child.