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Bulletin | Covid-19

Managing an International Workforce in a Global Pandemic

Reading Time 7 minute read


Labour, Employment and Human Rights Bulletin

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus to be an “increasingly complex global heath challenge” and it has officially classified the situation to be a global pandemic.

Many workplaces in Canada are, in fact, internationally connected and the labour scarcity at the present time means that many employers are looking outside Canada for foreign workers with specialized skill sets. Employers who have an internationally mobile workforce or who are in the process of bringing foreign workers into Canada now have to take into account for travel restrictions are being imposed, changes to usual immigration procedures and that little-used powers to detain or quarantine persons crossing borders may be employed. This is happening in Canada, and indeed, in other countries where fears of person-to-person contagion prompt changes to habitual rules concerning permissible international mobility of individuals.

This bulletin is an update on some of the challenges for employers, focusing specifically on travel and immigration issues.

New Travel Restrictions

On March 16, 2020, the Prime Minister announced that Canada will be denying entry to travellers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, with some exceptions, including for US citizens and immediate family members of Canadian citizens.

Air operators will be mandated to prevent all travelers who present symptoms of COVID-19 from boarding a plane to Canada. Anyone who presents with symptoms of COVID-19 will be denied boarding. This requirement also applies to Canadian citizens.

The Canadian government announced that only four Canadian airports will be accepting international flights: Toronto Pearson, Montreal Trudeau, Vancouver and Calgary. Domestic flights will not be affected by this new measure, nor are flights from the United States, Mexico, and select other points of origin. Similarly, travel restrictions are not expected to apply to commerce or trade, although details on this exception have not been revealed.

The Prime Minister is now urging the 14-day self-isolation period for anyone that has travelled outside of Canada, including to the US. These travelers will have to sign an acknowledgement at the airport or border that they have been advised of the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days. Further, the Prime Minister urged all asymptomatic Canadians abroad to come home, and urged Canadians to stay home if they can.

The measure came into force on March 18, 2020 at 12:00 pm EDT, on the same date the Prime Minister announced that Canada and the US are finalizing a collaborative deal to temporary close their shared border to “essential travel”. Essential travel will still be permitted to preserve trucking and the supply chains of food, fuel and life-saving medicine to ensure they reach people on both sides of the border. Similarly, essential work or any other approved urgent reasons for travelling are not expected to be impacted. Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair also declared that temporary foreign workers and international students with a valid visa will be authorized to enter Canada with the expectation they will comply with the 14-day self-isolation period. Although details on these extraordinary measures intended to limit further contagion have not been revealed, the Canadian government announced that non-essential travel includes for now recreation travel and tourism.

It is expected that the Canadian government will publish additional information regarding the application of these new travel restrictions.

Avoid Non-Essential International Travel

Global networks and constant international travel means that diseases transferred by humans move rapidly around the world. Initial outbreaks were in interior China but at the time of publication new centres of concentration of affected persons have shifted to different parts of the world.

At the time of publication, the Canadian government has issued the advisory that non-essential international travel be avoided until further notice. It may issue other travel advisories as the pandemic situation evolves.

Before authorizing employees to undertake international travel to possibly affected areas, consult the latest travel advisory information on the websites of the WHO, Public Health Agency of Canada and your provincial and municipal health agency.

Both Canada and the WHO monitor declared cases of sickness and may take extraordinary measures to warn travellers about destinations which are unusually risky because of the danger of contagious infection in that environment. The list of countries affected may change over time.

Other means of communication or postponement of travel should be envisaged if there are serious health implications for workers.

Beware generally of acting on the basis of rumours and fake news which may be carried on social media sites, which are proliferating widely. Canadian, provincial and municipal government health sites carry scientifically valid information and advice as does CBC/Radio Canada.

Special Measures For Certain Immigration Applications

The Canadian government has already implemented measures intended to control the spread of the disease which have important consequences for the processing of certain immigration applications.

Affected immigration services currently include visa application centre closures, travel plan disruptions, restricted access to local government offices and businesses, limited access to the designated panel of physicians who can perform prescribed immigration medical examinations and other similar service disruptions at Canadian visa offices abroad. 

The measures are particularly relevant for: 

• individuals whose permanent residence applications have been approved but cannot travel to Canada before their documents expire or their confirmation of permanent residence has already expired; 

• applicants who have recently applied for temporary or permanent residence and are outside of Canada; 

• individuals who are about to apply for permanent residence through the Express Entry System; 

• permanent residents and foreign nationals who need a travel authorization, visitor visa, study permit or work permit to travel to Canada urgently; 

• refugees in Canada; and 

• temporary residents who are unable to leave or return to Canada.  

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has announced that all citizenship ceremonies, citizenship tests and retests, and itinerant service trips are cancelled until further notice.

IRCC has also relaxed the application of certain requirements that apply to individuals who have applied for temporary or permanent residence and are outside of Canada, including the requirement to submit passports and other supporting documents, such as police certificates, and the completion of medical examinations. The deadline to complete medical examinations has now been extended from 30 days to 90 days to accommodate applicants.

The Canadian government has also implemented new special measures to help temporary residents, permanent residents and applicants from countries where there are high levels of outbreaks who have been affected by the disruption of certain immigration services.

Depending on the nature of the immigration application, it is strongly recommended that concerned individuals regularly consult these special measures for updates and use the IRCC web form tool or other specified means of communication approved by the Canadian government to inform the immigration authorities about any particular circumstances associated with the outbreak that may affect the processing of their applications.

Employers should seek legal advice in order to learn how these special measures may affect any pending or prospective immigration applications.

Quarantine Powers And Reporting Obligations For Travellers

Both federal and provincial governments have sweeping powers to deal with communicable diseases.

The federal Quarantine Act, revised after the 2003 SARS outbreak, allows officials to take comprehensive measures if they have reason to believe that persons returning to Canada from a foreign country or leaving may pose a risk to public health. Their powers include obligatory health assessments at Canadian ports of entry (airports/land borders), referral to a health examination, an order to comply with treatment or any other measure for preventing the introduction and spread of communicable diseases, and expedited procedures for obtaining an arrest warrant for persons who do not comply with the indicated course of action. Further powers allow an application to be made to a superior court of the province or the Federal Court for an order to submit to a health examination or treatment.

Pursuant to the provisions of the Quarantine Act, travellers who do not have symptoms but believe they were exposed to someone who was sick with COVID-19 are required to report this information to a Canada border services agent immediately upon arrival in Canada.

The Quarantine Act allows for large fines and other sanctions in the case of non-compliance. But whistleblowers are protected and no person can suffer adverse employment effects for acting in accordance with the Quarantine Act.

Provincial and municipal health authorities also have broad powers to take exceptional measures in the cases of apprehended communicable disease threats. Provincial governments may also issue specific guidance on occupational health and safety measures to be taken in exceptional circumstances.

Extraordinary measures have already been implemented at major airports to identify travellers returning to Canada who may be ill and to raise awareness among travellers about what they need to do in the event they become symptomatic. Said measures are intended to complement standard routine traveller screening procedures to prepare for, detect and respond to the spread of serious infectious diseases.

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Our dedicated immigration team can assist your company in navigating the unknown waters of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the challenges associated with immigration and international mobility.


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