Labour and exploitation

Migrant workers still waiting for federal protection

Week of action draws attention to Canada’s exploitative foreign worker program
Photo: Peter Haden

Sheldon McKenzie was a worker from Jamaica who did seasonal farm labour for 12 years in Canada. His death after an injury on the job has focused renewed attention on the exploitation of migrant workers.

A group dedicated to rebuilding Canada’s immigration system to provide status for migrant workers is planning a week of events across the country in the hopes of influencing the current parliamentary review of the controversial and arguably broken Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

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The Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada wants to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers through the #StatusNow Week of Action, which runs May 28 to June 6.

MP Bryan May chairs the committee in charge of the review, which concludes on June 15. By his own admission, the majority of meetings have been with industry leaders, reports the Calgary Herald.

“The review of the program should be a review that hears primarily from migrant workers.”

The coalition is working to “correct that bias” by getting migrant workers involved and heard, said member Syed Hussan in a phone interview.

“It isn't about simply adding migrant workers into the mix,” said Hussan. “The review of the program should be a review that hears primarily from migrant workers.”

“So the issue isn't so much will migrant workers speak. It's how many will speak? It's how valuable will their voices be? And what will come out in the laws and regulations to follow?”

Targeting racialized workers

The coalition has put together a toolkit that includes an online petition and a guide to meeting with MPs, writing letters, and organizing events. Its first campaign, titled MoVe, outlines demands that were developed after 16 months of negotiation among members. These demands focus on status upon arrival, employment mobility and the undoing of Stephen Harper's legacy, which included regulations that left migrant workers in much more vulnerable positions, such as caps on employment of migrant workers.

By lacking resident status, many migrant workers are ineligible to access federally funded settlement services available to other newcomers, according to a recent report by the Canadian Council for Refugees. Migrant workers often become isolated and “vulnerable to abuse,” because they lack access to crucial yet basic services like language training, child care and health care, or information about jobs and housing, says the report.

“It's only when we started having racialized workers that we saw a change.”

The tiered system is also discriminatory, with different conditions for different types of workers. In the agricultural and “low-skilled” sectors, for example, migrant workers are contractually tied to one employer and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation, as fear of losing their jobs often keeps them quiet about grievances.

“The only way for migrant workers to ensure they have full rights is to ensure that they are not tied to employers and that they come with permanent residency,” said Chris Ramsaroop, another coalition member who co-hosted an online forum days before the parliamentary review began.

“Historically we saw this for Dutch, English and Polish workers,” he added. “It's only when we started having racialized workers that we saw a change.”

But scrapping the program is not an option, because it's one of the only ways “for low-wage, racialized people from the (Global) South to be able to come to this country,” said Hussan, who co-hosted the forum. It's also not an option for employers, as the Canadian economy is highly dependent on low-skilled foreign labour, particularly in the agricultural industry, as reported by the Globe and Mail.

'Ground zero' for migrant workers

Migrant Dreams, a documentary by filmmaker Min Sook Lee, focuses on the Ontario city of Leamington and makes a strong argument for why Canada is turning from a nation of immigrants to one of disposable, invisible labourers.

Currently, the number of people who come to Canada as temporary foreign workers is higher than the number of people who become permanent residents each year. With the “largest concentration of greenhouses in North America,” Leamington is not only Canada's tomato capital, but also “ground zero” for migrant workers, Lee told Ricochet.

On paper, the agreements look good for workers.

The film, which premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival on May 1, highlights the many injustices migrant workers endure in order to work. These often begin back home, where workers incur huge debts reaching up to $15,000 with so-called recruiters who offer to connect them to well-paying employers in Canada.

“In Ontario, the practice of recruitment is widespread,” Lee said over a working lunch in a cafeteria near the Hot Docs industry lounge in Toronto. “They are unlicensed, unregulated, non-monitored. So no one is really tracking the amount of transactions and business they're doing and the workers they're bringing into the country. So it's this kind of free-for-all for private recruiters.”

Violated contracts

Language is another huge barrier for most migrant workers, who often can't interpret the 30-plus-page contracts they sign. In fact, migrant workers are not even involved in drafting their contracts. For instance, in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which turns 50 this year, contracts are drafted bilaterally between “Canada and the participating countries,” as specified on the government's website.

On paper, the agreements look good for workers, as indicated by a sample contract between Canada and Mexico for employment in British Columbia. They prohibit the use of recruiters and stipulate that employers pay for all lodging, meal and transportation costs such as round-trip air fare for workers, among other amenities.

“This is not news. And yet there is complete government inaction.”

But in practice, as shown in Migrant Dreams, most of this never happens. Forcing migrant workers to pay rent for deplorable living conditions and demanding they surrender their passports are just some of the common, though illegal, employer practices.

Migrant workers “call it indentured labour because you are indentured to an employer who holds an unbalanced degree of power over your lives — not just your work life but every feature of your life,” Lee said. Workers are often also made to depend on employers for everything, from rides to the supermarket, the bank and even to the clinic, she added.

Changing employers also leaves workers “on the hook” for all the fees the previous employer was contractually supposed to cover, including the plane fare back home, Lee explained, which then forces workers “into the underground economy” and a vicious cycle of debt.

“So there are these mounting obstacles to changing employers. Oftentimes, it takes two or three months (during which time) you can't work legally. So how are you going to afford to live?”

Unenforced laws

The issue is that while “the laws are on the books, they're not being enforced,” said Lee, adding that a 2009 federal auditor general report, which revealed “deep concerns around regulations and enforcement of the rules of the program,” has gone completely unheeded by government.

“There have been consistent news reports … and two national reports citing abuse of the program. This is not news. And yet there is complete government inaction.”

Even some employers around the country have expressed solidarity.

Protection of workers' rights is administered at the provincial level, through the Ministry of Labour. But while on paper various provincial employment acts allow workers to make complaints without fear of reprisal, they are “largely not implemented,” agreed Hussan.

“So yes, laws exist. (But) regulation and recruitment for actual implementation, and policy in terms of hiring sufficient amount of staff to actually implement it, definitely does not exist (and) the laws do not account for the specific circumstance of migrant workers precariousness,” he said, adding there needs to be a “proactive system of enforcement.”

While political will at the top is lacking, grassroots community organizing has significantly strengthened migrant workers' struggles.

Solidarity with workers

Throughout Migrant Dreams, activists are shown as crucial in helping migrant workers interpret their contracts, clarify their rights, and fight for entitlements through legal means and resistance.

“Migrant worker organizations on the ground have been part of supporting the interests of migrant workers for over a century,” said Hussan.

In Leamington, the Migrant Worker Community Program, established as a registered charity since 2006, provides tools and services (including some English and Spanish training) to workers and employers to try encourage communal relationships.

"Most of us see that in the long term, we need to ensure we have a good program for protecting and supporting the exact people who we depend on for tending our farms.”

Even some employers around the country have expressed solidarity. The National Farmers Union, for instance, has passed resolutions in support of migrant workers' demands in obtaining equal rights within the workplace, according to Coral Sproule, NFU women's president.

Although the union’s more progressive policies are not “something that every one of (its) members agree on,” said Sproule in a phone interview, many other farmers agree that “upholding the quality of life for our workers” is good for everybody in the long run.

“A lot of farmers are obviously concerned with economic sustainability,” she said. “But I think most of us see that in the long term, we (need to) ensure we have a good program for protecting and supporting the exact people who we depend on for tending our farms.”

From the ground up

The federal government has the power to change the program by ministerial decree. That happened in 2014, when changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program took away the guaranteed right to apply for permanent residency.

This means the federal government is not obliged to follow any recommendations that come out of the parliamentary review, and may choose instead to make changes that worsen or improve the situation of migrant workers.

Coalition members aren’t holding their breath, and are definitely not counting on the feds to step up and do the right thing, Hussan said. Instead, they’re working overtime to strengthen “worker power on the ground” and create networks among workers, here and abroad, that can help workers anywhere political apathy reigns.

“The call for action is building alliances, more than anything else. Once we change conditions on the ground, the laws will follow. It does not work the other way,” he said.

Two #StatusNow events will be held on May 30, one at noon in Charlottetown at the Province House, and on at 1 p.m. in Toronto on the southeast corner of Bloor and Spadina. An event in Vancouver on May 31 begins at 11 a.m. The location is to be determined.

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