Seasonal workers should get Medicare coverage, advocacy group says

The majority of New Brunswick's temporary foreign workers work in seafood processing, forestry and food manufacturing. (CBC - image credit)
The majority of New Brunswick's temporary foreign workers work in seafood processing, forestry and food manufacturing. (CBC - image credit)

An advocacy group is calling on New Brunswick to extend Medicare coverage to the thousands of temporary foreign workers living in the province.

Approximately 3,400 people work from six to eight months in the province's major industries — forestry, seafood processing and food manufacturing. Medicare is only available to those with a work permit that's valid for 12 months or more, which excludes seasonal workers.

Aditya Rao, founding board member of the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre in New Brunswick, said seasonal workers are reliant on private health insurance purchased by their employer. This insurance rarely covers primary health care and lab tests, and there's no incentive for the employer to spend more than the minimum on the policies, he said.

"They're systemically excluded from access to Medicare," he said. "Their employers have to essentially play doctor and decide what level of private health-care insurance is appropriate for their workers."

Premier Blaine Higgs was in Ottawa Tuesday to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and discuss health-care transfer funds.

Rao is also calling on the federal government to attach strings to that health-care cash to make sure it all goes to health care, and that some of it goes to temporary workers.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Department of Health spokesperson Adam Bowie confirmed that only foreign workers with a work permit of 12 months or more are eligible for Medicare. He did not answer questions about why the province does not provide Medicare coverage to people with work permits valid for fewer than 12 months, or if the province has any plans to expand coverage in the future.

Rao said he's heard from a worker who had to pay $1,000 out of pocket for an ultrasound in New Brunswick. Another is currently fundraising to pay for dialysis, and another pays $30 for each doctor visit.

He said these workers don't feel comfortable speaking publicly because of fear of reprisal from employers, and therefore deportation. He said many people work for eight months, go back to their country, and hope their employer invites them back for the next season.

"If they speak out about issues that they're facing then they might not be called back," he said.

He said the expense is especially burdensome for temporary workers, who are already working low-paying jobs that are dangerous. Although workers come from all over the globe, the majority are from the Philippines and Mexico, Rao said.

International students were in the same situation, but that changed in 2017. Now, international students just have to show a valid study permit and proof of full-time registration at a New Brunswick college or university to get Medicare coverage. New Brunswick became the eighth province to cover international students.

Extended coverage in other provinces

Foreign workers are required to have work permits for 12 months or longer in order to qualify for health care in New Brunswick, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba.

Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia require a six-month work permit.

In Saskatchewan, temporary foreign workers must live in the province for three months before they're eligible, just like all other new residents.

Quebec has extended coverage specifically for temporary foreign workers. Agriculture workers, and temporary foreign workers from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico or Salvador can have provincial health-care coverage immediately upon arrival to Quebec.

COVID-19 measures in Ontario have resulted in making all temporary foreign workers eligible for provincial health care, said Rao, but there's no indication how long that will last.