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'Govt has gone deaf': Indian workers facing deportation in Canada to go on full hunger strike

Indian workers have been protesting since May 9 after Canada's Prince Edward Island (PEI) announced a 25 per cent cut in the number of permanent residency numbers. The new rules have reduced annual permits from 2,100 to 1,600 in 2024, causing workers in low-skill jobs to face deportation.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Ottawa (Canada) Published on: May 29, 2024 7:23 IST
Indian protest, Canada, immigration
Image Source : X Indian workers protesting in Canada's PEI province.

Ottawa: After a controversial decision by the local government in Canada's Prince Edward Island (PEI) to reduce foreign workers, dozens of Indian workers facing deportation have now entered their fourth day of hunger strike in downtown Charlottetown, according to local media reports. The provincial government earlier announced its plans to cut the number of immigrant workers from 2,100 to about 1,600, with a big drop in the number of hospitality workers.

Indian workers announced a full hunger strike on May 28 (Tuesday) by avoiding even fluid intake, which becomes extremely detrimental to their health more than if they stop intake of solid food. One of the protesters said that about 50 workers had already left Canada because of the changes in the immigration rules, and some of the protesters have faced harassment, according to CBC News.

Jaspreet Singh Sivia, one of the people who have been speaking for the protesters, said the provincial government abruptly changed immigration rules for people who were already in the process of working towards getting permanent residency in Canada. He warned that the protests would be stepped up if the government did not pay heed to the demands of the Indian workers.

'Government has gone deaf'

The PEI government announced in February that it would reduce the number of permanent residency numbers by 25 per cent this year. It is also drastically reducing the number of sales and service workers it will nominate, from over 800 in 2023 to roughly 200 this year. It would also reduce the number of foreign nominees in the provincial nominee program (PNP). Certain sectors, such as construction and health care, will be favoured as the number of prospective immigrants is to be reduced as per the changed policy.

The PEI government said it needed to reduce immigration to moderate the record population in the province in recent years from both within and outside Canada. The government said the population growth has contributed to a burgeoning housing crisis since 2019 and has put pressure on the province's healthcare system. The province later added a change, where preference would be given to PNP applicants in the healthcare and construction fields.

The new immigration policy sparked a backlash from foreign workers facing deportation in the province, and several of them have been protesting against the decision since May 9. Protesters have asked the provincial government to exclude workers who are already on the island from the impact of the policy changes. The protesters say the changes will have an impact on employers as well, along with the service industry.

"There have been no actions taken. It looks like the government has become deaf," Sivia said, adding that workers are more concerned about fighting for fair treatment rather than about their health in the hunger strike. "We will be doing a 24-hour dry hunger strike effective Tuesday if we still don't hear from the government officials. We will be there 24/7, every day."

Reactions to the immigration changes

The protesters want people who arrived before July 2023 exempted from the changes and the PNP draws should also include service sector workers. They have also asked the government that people whose work permits are expiring should have them extended to allow them time to deal with the changes. A reduction in permits will affect low-skill service sectors, forcing Indian workers to depart voluntarily or face deportation.

Rupinder Pal Singh, told CBC News, that about 50 people have left Canada because of the rule changes. "There are some people who have been harassing us ... throwing glasses, cans on us, throwing water while people were asleep," Singh said. "Even we saw the harassment from people shouting, making noise all night long because we have been protesting outside, people have been sleeping."

Opposition politicians have sided with the protesters over the issue. Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly called the immigration decision "very unfair" and said the workers are not boosting pressure on housing and schools. He also called on the provincial government to treat the workers with more respect. 

"I'm ashamed that the province who welcomed these folks here had a set of rules — legitimate, perfectly reasonable rules — laid out to which all of these people complied fully," Green Party MLA Peter Bevan-Baker said. Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar has also expressed concern with the direction the province is taking, saying foreign workers should not be blamed and penalised for the housing crisis in Canada. "They didn't create it. Our governments created it, and now migrant workers are being punished," she said.

In an email to Radio-Canada, Charlottetown police's Deputy Chief Sean Coombs said the protest is being monitored by patrol officers on a regular basis. "We have not received any medical distress calls through our dispatch to this location. We have a designated officer who remains in contact with this group and has open dialogue. The group remains peaceful and respectful of rules and law," Coombs said.

Why is immigration become such an issue in Canada?

Canada is generally known for its flexible immigration and citizenship policies. However, statistics have shown that the country's working-age population has grown by 411,400 people in the first four months of 2024, a massive 47 per cent increase over the same period in 2023 and nearly four times the average of those four months from 2007 to 2022. Officials believe that the rise of immigration has put stress on healthcare and housing infrastructure in the country, especially in the PEI province.

Canada's population reached a record 40 million as several Canadians reportedly struggled with an increased cost of living, including rents and mortgages. In the wake of this situation, the Justin Trudeau-led Canadian government announced a two-year cap on international student visas in January to curb record immigration. The new proposals will also set limits on post-graduate work permits issued to foreign students, which will likely encourage them to return to their home countries.

The vast majority of international students come from India and China. India contributed about 40 per cent of the foreign students coming to Canada, with China coming in second with about 12%, according to official data from 2022. However, Canada experienced a major 86 per cent decline in the issuance of study permits to Indian students towards the end of last year, owing to the diplomatic dispute over the murder of a Sikh separatist terrorist in Surrey.

Jeff Young, the director of PEI's Office of Immigration, said the new policies intend to slow down the island's population growth, as the number of non-permanent residents has grown to 11,000. ""We know it's a difficult situation for a lot of people...But as the premier announced on February 22, the new immigration measures aim to manage our population growth," he said.

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