Migrant workers: The invisible victims of Alberta’s housing crisis

Pandemic has put a spotlight on the many ways government and landlords are failing homeless and underhoused people
Photo: Government of Alberta
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When COVID-19 infected more than 900 mostly racialized workers at Cargill’s massive meatpacking plant in High River, Alberta, last spring, few people connected the outbreak to housing issues.

But the shortage of safe, affordable living space for migrant workers is an important if less visible side of Alberta’s overall worsening homelessness and housing crisis. Community members are frustrated by the inadequate response from authorities.

When Amy (not her real name) started her position as a housing support worker at Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton, she was fully aware of the stressful demands of her contract job. Yet, three months before her contract was over and after she was offered a promotion, she quit.

This is the reality of most housing assistance programs. Amy describes high turnover in this field, adding that organizations try their best to not lose workers.

“I left Boyle Street because the job was very stressful, it was a very difficult job,” Amy says. “A lot of the time, landlords didn’t want to work with us.”

“... an increase in social housing would be beneficial both for the economy and for the housing situation in Alberta.”

She worked in a Housing First program, which prioritizes finding permanent housing for homeless people as an initial step to well-being. As such, she was expected to locate affordable housing options and help secure income supports — such as the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and Alberta Works programs — for her clients. To be eligible for the program, clients had to have been homeless for at least one year.

“It’s getting a lot harder for us to get our clients into housing,” Amy says. “I’ve noticed that a lot of landlords would prefer to keep their units empty than to rent to somebody who has been experiencing homelessness.”

Landlords apply harmful stereotypes to homeless people, says Amy, assuming they are reckless, have substance abuse disorders and are unable to pay rent.

Though the Alberta Human Rights Act provides protections against discrimination by landlords, it is difficult to enforce — primarily because most people who are discriminated against don't have the resources or financial ability to do anything about it.

Long-standing problems and temporary solutions

In 2008, the Alberta government and the city of Edmonton introduced a 10-year plan to end homelessness. In 2020, as a response to Camp Pekiwewin, a homeless encampment in the city’s Rossdale neighbourhood that was home to hundreds of people from August until its closure in November, Edmonton mayor Don Iveson created a 10-week plan to end homelessness.

But the housing provision goals of these plans were not met.

“We’re lagging behind housing needs in Alberta for years and years, it’s not a new phenomenon,” says Erick Ambtman, executive director of EndPoverty Edmonton, chair of the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies, and former executive director for the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. “I think COVID just raised the spotlight on these issues, sort of shows the worst that can happen.”

Lindsay (not her real name) is a recent counselling graduate who has worked with people with substance abuse disorders for the past three years in Alberta. “We need so many more options in terms of supportive housing for people who chronically have these mental health conditions and have these chronic substance abuse issues,” she says.

An increase in social housing would be beneficial both for the economy and for the housing situation in Alberta.

Lindsay worked at a drop-in rehab centre in Calgary for two years before working at Edmonton’s Boyle McCauley Health Centre for a year and a half as part of the Assertive Community Treatment team in the Pathways to Housing Program. There, she worked with psychiatrists, social workers and other healthcare workers to help clients with complex needs who were looking to address their substance use.

She says that people with chronic mental health conditions who are continuously evicted from every available housing option typically need Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), which provides wraparound supports in addition to stable housing.

“There’s just a major lack of [PSH] in Alberta,” Lindsay says. “Even when I worked in Calgary, and as well in Edmonton, if someone gets referred to PSH, usually the waitlist is a minimum of two to three years, if not longer.”

Both Amy and Lindsay believe non-profit organizations can only offer a temporary solution to a long-term problem.

“People are homeless, people are living out in the streets and people are dying, especially in our cold winters and during the pandemic,” Amy says. “If we want to fix this problem, I think the government needs to step in and not just push this issue onto the non-profit sector.”

“Instead of trying to address homelessness, we’re just going to randomly build more treatment centres, which in of itself continues to isolate a community,” Lindsay says. “It’s like we’ll try to give you housing options only if you’re sober.”

Both Amy and Lindsay argue for more affordable housing options. Building more housing will be labour intensive. As a result, Ambtman believes an increase in social housing would be beneficial both for the economy and for the housing situation in Alberta.

“There’s a reason why there’s a long waitlist for social housing because there’s a really big need, because people can’t afford market housing,” Ambtman says. We need to be “reskilling and retooling people, helping secure high-paying jobs and also attracting high-paying quality jobs to the community, so people don’t need to be so dependent on the social housing system.”

The invisible housing crisis of migrant workers

Migrant workers, like the ones in High River, are facing a housing crisis of their own — one that is often overlooked by formal housing supports.

Employers are expected to provide free housing to any migrant workers they hire, especially in the cases of live-in caregivers and agricultural workers. These living spaces are often cramped, dilapidated and crowded, with multiple people sometimes residing in one room. Migrants without status may also be charged exorbitant rates by employers for these poor housing conditions.

Migrant workers who live with their employers face increased surveillance and are at risk of working extended shifts without compensation or being physically or sexually abused. As a result, some end up couch surfing or hanging in public spaces to avoid having to go home.

In late June 2020, Alberta premier Jason Kenney suspended the Temporary Foreign Worker Program for 12 months and decreased the number of immigration certificates given out by one-third.

“If we don’t collectively work together to address an issue like this, then it’s going to persist.”

According to Jason Foster, associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University and board member for the Alberta Workers Association for Research and Education, this decision has complicated effects on migrant workers.

“We see a lot of migrant workers return home during this period, but we’ve also seen an increase in the number of workers who have lost their status, become what we call undocumented ... we don’t know exactly how many there are, contemplating somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 currently in Alberta,” Foster says.

Kenney’s United Conservative Party has “in effect shut down the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Alberta, which basically strands 13,000 migrant workers. They have now basically cut off any prospect of them being in the country legally in the next year or two.”

In Alberta, the majority of migrants work in low-paid occupations, such as retail, hospitality and restaurants, while another subset works in construction. Foster says that the oil and gas boom absorbed workers and left employers in other industries looking for alternative labour options. They relied on migrants to fill positions. However, when oil prices crashed in 2015, there was a large reduction in migrant workers in Alberta.

“They don’t possess the same level of labour market rights that the rest of us have. That’s a conscious decision by the Canadian provincial governments to do that,” Foster says. “We could be bringing them over as permanent immigrants. We could be bringing them here without the restrictions and stipulations that we place upon them.”

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers, says that Canada’s seasonal agricultural and temporary foreign worker programs create a system of apartheid, one that racially subordinates people of colour and people from the Global South.

“This is intentionally created, this is created through legislative systems,” Ramsaroop says. “Rather than the federal or the provincial government throwing money at employers, how do we get our conversations about developing the right housing for all people? How do we ensure farm workers are included and migrants as well?”

Ambtman says community members need to figure out how to address the housing crisis for all people.

“There’s no one government policy, there’s no one social program that is some sort of silver bullet, and if we don’t collectively work together to address an issue like this, then it’s going to persist.”

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