Manitoba needs equitable health care for international students, migrant workers: coalition

A coalition of 15 grassroots Manitoba community organizations says the province must ensure equitable health-care access for everyone, and they want to keep that conversation front of mind in the province’s political discourse.

International students, migrant workers, refugees and undocumented immigrants have not had access to publicly funded universal health care in Manitoba since it was axed in 2018, but the Healthcare for All coalition is pushing for its reinstatement.

“The government should stop treating humans as numbers for economic purposes, but see value in us and extend health coverage to us,” Judith Oviosun, the provincial campaigns co-ordinator for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students, said at a news conference Thursday.

Oviosun, who is from Nigeria, graduated from the University of Manitoba earlier this year. She had access to publicly funded health care as a student prior to the change to the Health Services Insurance Act in 2018, which the province said would save more than $3 million a year.

But since then, students have felt like “easy targets and cash cows” of the Manitoba government, Oviosun said.

“This is just plain discrimination and we can just see this policy for what it is, as being racist, because the government is single-handedly picking and choosing which Manitobans should have access to health care and who shouldn’t.”

She is not the only international student or migrant worker who feels ostracized by the provincial government.

Tolani Olanrewaju, a U of M microbiology student, has private health insurance but she still has to pay $65 almost every time she goes for a medical assessment.

In August, she had a CT scan and was told she would receive her test result within a few days. She finally received that result — two months later.

Tolani Olanrewaju, a University of Manitoba microbiology student, has private health insurance but says she still has to pay $65 almost every time she goes for a medical assessment. (CBC)

Olanrewaju called the clinic and was told the delay was because of her private health care.

“It makes me less inclined to want to go [get] health care, and sometimes I postpone things that I should get checked,” she said.

“Like right now, I probably should get my dentist appointment done, but [those are] things that make it very inconvenient for us. Health care is not accessible and it makes things really hard.”

According to the province, there are currently 11,141 international students enrolled in public post-secondary institutions, and all international students are required to pay for health insurance fees on top of their tuition costs.

At the U of M, international students pay $1,032 for a full year of coverage through the Manitoba International Student Health Plan.

The U of M says the plan “provides international students with primary health coverage, which allows them to access medical services in Canada from doctors, clinics and hospitals.”

Workers need coverage: Migrante Manitoba

Migrant workers also face their own hurdles.

Those with a work permit for more than one year can access health care immediately. Workers with a work permit covering less than a year have to find their own health coverage, and it’s usually limited to emergency procedures, says Diwa Marcelino, an organizer with Migrante Manitoba, which advocates for migrant workers.

He said they are less likely to complain about harassment, working conditions and discrimination, fearing that could result in losing their job, work status and health care.

“Migrant workers need health care as a right. They don’t need health care to be put over their head like a dangling carrot for them to shut up and be quiet and continue to be exploited by their employers,” Marcelino said.

“We need health care for all and we need it now.”

Rico Manaloto came to Canada in 2019 from the Philippines, where he worked as an industrial butcher. He is one of more than 12,000 temporary migrant workers in Manitoba, but he was laid off in June and has had trouble finding new employment.

“There’s a lot of companies that I applied [to work] for and they called me to be employed with them, but unfortunately they don’t allow me because my work permit is still tied up in name with a previous employer,” Manaloto said.

He has applied for permanent residency in Canada but his application is still being processed. 

Manaloto now also worries about his health insurance running out when his permit expires in August 2022.

“I am appealing with the government for my … application to have my permanent residency here in Canada so that I could stay here and find a job easily, and to have good health insurance, public insurance,” Manaloto said.

Rico Manaloto, a migrant worker from the Philippines, is currently unemployed and worries about his health insurance running out when his work permit expires in summer 2022. (CBC)

Healthcare for All has started a petition on the Canadian Federation of Students website, which had nearly 500 signatures as of Wednesday night. The Opposition NDP has committed to repeatedly reading the petition in the Manitoba Legislature in an effort to push the government to turn back the clock.

In a statement emailed to CBC, a provincial spokesperson said Manitoba is “a destination of choice for many” and “is very affordable on many fronts.”

The province is “committed to the safe arrival of both international students, and new immigrants,” the statement said, and will work to ensure health care remains affordable.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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