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It's lunch in the bunk-house for Trinidadian seasonal workers (left to right) Rudy Ramroop, Brendon Thompson and Ricardo Sookhoo along with farmer Bill Eek, on Dec. 21, 2020.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Stranded migrant workers will be allowed to go home to Trinidad and Tobago under strict screening protocols, but many are choosing to remain in Canada for fear of not being able to return in the spring.

The Trinidad and Tobago government said in a statement on Tuesday that it will dedicate flights and quarantine facilities to repatriate about 400 workers from the country stuck on farms in Canada. But with costly quarantine procedures and no guarantee that they will be able to return for work in a few months, many workers are facing the choice between earning a paycheque and spending time with their families.

“It’s a bit late to go back home at this point,” said Ricardo Sookhoo, one of three migrant workers at Eek Farms near Newmarket, Ont. “It will be February by the time we do the paperwork and quarantine to go back to Trinidad. Then there’s a chance that we might not even be able to come back to Canada in April.”

Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders in the spring when the pandemic spread around the globe, delaying the arrival of migrant workers that work on farms across Canada each year. The government imposed strict travel restrictions and banned commercial flights to curb the spread of the virus. Trinidad and Tobago says it warned workers bound for Canada that they may not be able to return.

Migrant workers that travelled to Canada after Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders on March 22 were required to sign an agreement acknowledging the risk, according to the statement.

“Nevertheless, as soon as these workers finished working in Canada they demanded to return,” according to a statement from the Trinidad and Tobago government.

“Many were accustomed to going and spending months away and may have lost their jobs and wanted to come back to Trinidad and Tobago. They were not nationals who were stuck outside due to going out for a short vacation.”

Some workers returned home on a Tuesday evening flight from Toronto, and the Trinidad and Tobago government has scheduled additional flights at 10-day intervals, according to Global Affairs Canada.

Workers must apply to return and must test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of boarding a flight. When they arrive in Trinidad and Tobago, they have to pay to stay in state-supervised quarantine facilities for seven days, according to the Trinidad and Tobago government. And there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to return in the spring, which could leave workers without a job and farmers without a work force to harvest the products that feed Canadians year-round.

“There’s a lot of unemployment back home and it’s hard to find a job,” Mr. Sookhoo said. “But also if we don’t come back to Canada, who will my bosses get to do the job? In the spring when we couldn’t come back, they had problems finding people to help.”

Of those who are returning to the Caribbean country, many have small children and families that they cannot continue to be away from, Mr. Sookhoo said.

Each year, thousands of migrant workers leave their homes and families to work hard-labour jobs on farms. But the workers have never spent a winter in Canada, and many farms are not equipped to house them during the cold months.

The federal government made open work permits available in mid-December to workers stranded in Canada, allowing them to take on jobs away from the farm. The permits also provide them with access to health care and employment insurance. Ontario, where many workers are staying, also said it will provide money for farmers for housing, meals, winter clothing and communications, such as internet, to help workers contact their families.

Brett Schuyler, who employs about 100 migrant workers from Trinidad and Tobago at his farm near Simcoe, Ont., said that many are considering staying in Canada throughout the winter. Workers typically arrive at Schuyler Farms in March, which would mean his workers would spend almost as much time in quarantine as they would at home before having to return, if they are allowed. Four workers returned home in the past month.

“Everyone tells me that things are tough in Trinidad and a lot of people really depend on this opportunity to make a better life for their families and for themselves,” Mr. Schuyler said.

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