Temporary Foreign Workers

The immigration system isn’t broken; it’s working for corporate interests


Photo: Tania Liu

In a recent landmark case, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded over $200,000 to two Mexican migrant women for sexual harassment, discrimination, and a sexually poisoned work environment. This is the largest damages award in the tribunal’s history. Thirty-nine female temporary foreign workers from Mexico who came to work for Presteve Foods Ltd., a fish processing plant, initially filed the case in 2007. A number of women settled prior to the case being heard.

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The remaining two complainants — sisters now living in Canada as permanent residents and known only by their initials O.P.T. and M.P.T. — recounted horrific details of sexual assault and rape during a hearing in 2012. The tribunal heard how owner Jose Pratas made repeated unwanted sexual solicitations, forcibly and non-consensually hugged and kissed the women, repeatedly “touched her legs over her clothes up to her vagina" and “penetrated her with his penis.”

The two also expressed how much they feared reprisal, as they were constantly threatened with deportation. One of them was terminated and deported to Mexico, after she defied his admonition not to go out for a coffee.

Not just one bad apple

Adjudicator Mark Hart emphasized the particular systemic vulnerability of the women under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Hart found that the women felt obligated to accept the owner’s sexual advances because they did not want to be sent back. “As a temporary foreign worker in Canada, O.P.T. was put in the position of being totally reliant upon her employer,” he wrote in his 90-page judgment. “Temporary foreign worker programs in Canada operate on the basis of closed work permits, which only entitle a migrant worker to employment with one designated employer.”

“As a result, a migrant worker like O.P.T. tends to be reliant upon the employment relationship with the designated employer to a degree that is not experienced by Canadian workers. Migrant workers like O.P.T. live under the ever-present threat of having their designated employer decide to end the employment relationship, for which they require no reason and for which there is no appeal or review.”

This looming threat of termination and deportation is a stark reality for over 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada. “This decision is an indictment not only against Jose Pratas and Presteve Foods but an indictment against Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” stated Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia for Migrant Workers, one of the intervening groups in the case. “We hope this decision breaks the silence of tens of thousands who toil under exploitative working and living conditions.”

Managed migration and permanent temporariness

A recent Parliamentary Budget Office study found that the number of foreign workers in Canada has tripled between 2002 and 2012, with most living in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. In 2008, for the first time, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada exceeded the total number of permanent residents. This gap is only growing with each passing year, as the Harper government has made it harder to sponsor spouses and parents permanently, tightened rules for refugees, and eliminated the Federal Skilled Worker Program that used to allow workers to remain in the country.

The decrease in permanent immigration and simultaneous explosion of migrant workers is a part of a model of “managed migration” that Canada has championed around the world for the past decade. As the U.S. government struggles to resolve its “undocumented problem,” which sees generations of migrants remain (albeit invisibly) within the country, it has turned to Canada to learn how to keep migrants temporary. Employment authorization programs that are central to immigration policy reform in the United States, for example, are based on the Canadian template.

The managed migration model explicitly ties immigration policy to economic interests and values immigrants based on their labour potential in relationship to employer needs. As articulated by O.P.T. and M.P.T during the hearing, migrant workers are made vulnerable by their temporary status and reliance on a single employer, because any assertion of their rights can lead to deportation. Migrant workers are indentured to and controlled by a single employer, paid less than minimum wage, denied labour rights, prevented from accessing social services despite paying into them, threatened with reprisal, and deported when considered dispensable.

This is exemplified under the “four in and four out” rule that now bars the renewal of work permits for foreign workers who have been working in Canada for four years. As a result of this policy, announced in 2011, an estimated 70,000 low-waged migrant workers are facing the possibility of expulsion this year. This is one of the largest mass deportations in Canadian history. While the government claims this is to ensure employers aren’t unnecessarily retaining workers, the reality is that the rule further entrenches precarity. It doesn’t actually reduce the pool of migrant workers; it just creates a revolving door of migrant workers who are even more transient, isolated, and vulnerable.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is, therefore, not a broken or flawed immigration program. Quite the opposite: the permanent temporariness of migrant workers is precisely what makes them an ideal labour force for state and capital interests.

The transnational nature of capital is contingent upon the differential segmentation, and hence immobility, of labour. It’s a perfected system that dozens of migrant worker organizations bluntly compare to modern-day slavery.

Given such egregious labour and racial apartheid facilitated through the in-sourcing of cheap labour, we should join these courageous women — and the community groups and unions, including Unifor, alongside them — in calling for permanent immigration status for migrant workers.

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