Migrant workers and modern slavery in Niagara

UN Report blasts Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Programme

Ed Smith
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Pointer

Early last fall a United Nations Special Rapporteur concluded that Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) was a “breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery” as a result of the policies that regulate their immigration status, employment, and housing in Canada.  

He was particularly concerned that those who suffered under these policies were disproportionately racialized, attesting to deep-rooted racism and xenophobia entrenched in Canada’s immigration system. 

The alarming language of the UN report sparked a call from members of all three major federal parties for an investigation into its findings and has been followed by a Canadian Senate report that underscores many of the UN findings.  

While the Senate committee started its work a full year prior to the UN’s investigation, its findings and recommendations are only now being released, six months after the UN’s preliminary findings were published. The final report from the UN is expected in July. 

Not surprisingly, as the federal government scrambles to overhaul its broken temporary foreign workers system, impacted industries are already lobbying to protect the cheap labour that fuels their profits. 

This week the Canadian Federation of Independent Business released its own report, warning Ottawa against dramatic steps that would hurt their operations, which companies say are vital to the country’s economy. 

It said, “In 2022, labour shortages in agriculture amounted to $2.8 billion in lost contracts or sales, thereby limiting sales and production growth. The problem is not going away with estimates from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council suggesting there will be 100,000 vacant jobs in the agriculture sector by 2030.”

The business lobby said foreign workers are “instrumental in bridging labour gaps” and recommended Ottawa “better align” its policies with the needs of agri-businesses which “should have the option to share or transfer workers between farms and employers (e.g., multi-employer work permit).” While the business group called for the federal government to ensure its foreign workers program “reflects market realities” it offered little guidance to protect those same foreign workers, many of whom continue to be exploited by the government, and the companies that rely on their labour.

Residents of Niagara have a long standing and deep rooted interest in the temporary foreign workers system, a system the United Nations widely critiques as discriminatory and exploitative.  

Migrant workers are a common site for residents of the region and at least nine months of every year they can be seen in large numbers working the fields of grapes, peaches, cherries and apples, or working inside the countless greenhouse operations that dominate much of the landscape.  

The workers arrive at grocery stores or banks en masse in farm vehicles provided by the bosses to do their shopping and banking, they ride their bikes along country lanes heading from one farm to the next and many of them proudly participate in the annual Grape and Wine Festival that marks a ceremonial end to the harvest season.  

For most residents of this vital agricultural zone the annual influx of migrant workers takes place largely without controversy and with little knowledge that the UN and the Canadian Senate have been highly critical of the system for importing migrant workers mostly from the Caribbean and Mexico.

Kit Andres is very aware, however, of the reports and the struggles migrant workers face when they come to Niagara.  

The lifelong Niagara resident has worked as an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) for six years and volunteered within the migrant work system for at least a dozen years prior.  

She finds it hard to identify any meaningful dialogue or changes that have resulted since the UN report became public in September. According to Andres, “The UN’s findings reinforced what migrant workers have been saying for decades, that they are being exploited, that their temporary immigration status facilitates that exploitation, and that the solution is permanent resident status to ensure equal rights.”  

Andres decries the fact that the Canadian government has not implemented any meaningful changes since the UN report, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau already promising a regularization program for undocumented migrants and permanent residency for migrant workers in his December 2021 mandate letter, while Immigration Minister Marc Miller promised a decision on regularization (permanent status for undocumented migrants).  

She says what the workers need now is more support from everyday Canadians because, “Every day that Trudeau delays action on permanent status for all, is another day of exploitation and painful family separation.”

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change is a migrant-led membership-based organization; the members decide the  organization’s priorities and direction and for years they have been calling for permanent resident status for migrant workers in order to balance the power equation. According to the organization it’s the only way to protect themselves against exploitation and abuse. Andres says that the fight for status isn’t just about immigration justice, it’s a fight for fair treatment, dignified housing, equal labour rights, full access to services, safer workplaces and fair wages.

Andres became involved in the struggle for migrant justice through friendships with migrant farm workers, friendships that go back 18 years and continue to this day. She has witnessed first hand what she describes as “the terrible living conditions my neighbours had to endure”, which included being forced to live in barns and sheds and she regularly heard stories about how the bosses mistreated them, their difficulties accessing health care and the pain of family separation.  

She volunteered in various capacities in community organizations that served the migrant workers. She and her mother and partner traveled to Jamaica to visit with migrant workers in their homes and in 2018 she and co-organizer Sonia Aviles were welcomed into MWAC.

She has not looked back.

One of the major issues addressed in both reports (the UN’s and the Senate’s) is the fact that workers who enter Canada through the temporary works programmes receive a closed work permit, meaning they are not free to change employers, while they face deportation upon termination of their employment.

The business lobby wants to restrict the ability of workers to change employers, claiming such allowances will lead to one company poaching workers from another. In other words, they do not want foreign workers to benefit from the same anti-monopoly, open market system of competition that the businesses themselves rely upon. This has the potential to give bosses an extraordinary degree of power over the lives of their workers and results in an employment culture in which the workers are afraid to challenge or complain about conditions that may be abusive, unsafe, unhealthy or unfair.  

The government disputes this and maintains that workers may quit their jobs and remain in Canada legally until the expiration of their visa; however, they are prohibited from working until they can find a new employer to undertake a labour market impact assessment on their behalf. That process can take months and they are not eligible for any social assistance in Canada which renders the likelihood of this happening highly unlikely.  

Compounding all of this is the reality that many workers reside in employer-provided accommodation as a requirement of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and therefore face homelessness if they lose their job. According to Andres, “Every migrant worker in the country knows that their presence in Canada is precarious and depends on their temporary work permit, and their work permit depends on their employer”. The policies in place do nothing to assuage those concerns among the workers. This power imbalance, or what the UN report calls a “dependency relationship”, creates a situation in which the bosses hold immense control over workers and puts migrants at risk of abuse, job termination, eviction, and deportation if they speak up for their rights.

The reports also describe the existence of debt bondage among many migrants.

Having paid large sums of money to recruitment brokers in their countries of origin they have no financial choice but to tolerate their conditions in Canada making them even more susceptible to any number of abuses, the reports underscore. Both reports gathered information from dozens of stakeholders and listed a number of living and working conditions the UN Rapporteur calls appalling. These conditions include excessive working hours, being obliged to perform work outside the contract, dangerous tasks, no overtime pay, denial of healthcare and/or transport to medical facilities, sexual harassment, violence at the hands of their employer, over crowded and unsanitary living conditions, lack of privacy, lack of gender sensitive housing arrangements and arbitrary restrictions on the use of electricity.   

All of these reported abuses occur despite protections the federal government claims are in place to prevent them. One such protection is the appointment of a government agent to whom migrant workers can register any complaints they have regarding their treatment in Canada. The official is not an agent of the Canadian government, but rather is a citizen of the country of origin for the migrant workers and has been selected by their government to represent the migrant workers interests in Canada.  

Under the terms of the contract between Canada and the various countries of origin, the foreign government representative has an obligation to report to the Canadian government cases of suspected abuse or mistreatment of workers in order to facilitate an integrity inspection if deemed required, to coordinate transfers of workers from a situation of exploitation to another employer and to ensure that a worker is not prevented from participating in the migrant workers program in the future merely for reporting abuse or mistreatment, unless the government of Canada determines the allegations were unfounded or misleading.  

But according to Kit Andres the system does not work as it is intended to.  

Although the government agent has the right to do preliminary gathering of information when a complaint is received, they have to contact the bosses in the course of that work.  

According to Andres that is where the system fails. She says bosses can request from the agent the full details of the complaint and will receive a copy of the agent’s report. Even if it does not name the complainant the details are enough for the boss to determine which worker has made the complaint, and employees fear that even if they are returned home immediately they will not be allowed to return for work the following year.  

According to Andres, often the first call an agent will make upon receiving a complaint from a worker is to the boss, who will be told that a complaint has been registered against them and will be told who made the complaint and the nature of the complaint, in order to get the boss’s response.  

Andres says that’s why workers prefer to make their complaints to MWAC and in many cases to her directly. Workers know who can be trusted to protect their best interests while still advocating for the required changes. It’s a trust that Andres has built over two decades.

The Canadian government acknowledges that the statement issued by the UN at the end of the Rapporteur’s investigation was critical of Canada, however, it disputes some of the findings and has noted that the final UN report is not yet published. The government response to the Senate report is expected within 100 days of its publication and should be public in the early fall. 

The key recommendations of the UN report include:

-Modify the Temporary Foreign Workers Program to enable workers to choose employers freely without any restriction and discrimination;

-Make the application for open work permit for vulnerable workers easier and simpler;

-Provide stronger oversight over employment recruiters and immigration consultants;

-Promote a unified approach to protecting the rights of migrant workers across Canada through more proactive coordination and communication among the Federal and Provincial/Territorial Governments;

-Include migrant workers in all decision making affecting their wellbeing. (Migrant workers are currently not consulted in regards to the terms of the contract they must sign, they have no voice in the issue).

The Senate report reflects much of the same but goes further to highlight that neither the migrant work programs nor the workers are truly temporary and therefore the government of Canada should:

-Include temporary residents in the annual Immigration Level Plans

-provide transparent information about transitioning from temporary work permits to permanent residence

-review language and education criteria to apply for permanent residence.

It also calls for actions to facilitate a clear pathway to permanent residence for those workers who desire it.  

The report also makes numerous other recommendations, including the creation of an independent organization to oversee migrant worker programs which would be independent and work at arm’s length from the government, responding to the needs of employers and migrant workers. Some of the other recommendations include:

-Phase out the system of closed contracts that ties a worker to a specific employer

-establish a research agenda to collect and analyze data about the experiences of migrant workers

-conduct unannounced inspections as the standard

-recognize the barriers that women and gender diverse migrant workers face

-provide more information about migrant workers rights to access health care, including what the employer is mandated to provide, and

-make migrant workers eligible for integration services under the existing Settlement Program.

The UN report concludes, in part. that, “The root causes of contemporary forms of slavery such as poverty, inequality and discrimination, which have been amplified by the legacy of colonialism and racism, must be tackled more seriously if Canada is to establish and maintain a truly inclusive society.” 

The Senate report largely steers clear of such evocative statements, but does make clear that the current program is causing the type of hardship that is entirely inconsistent with Canadian values.  

It’s now on the government to respond to both reports. For those involved in the migrant workers program as employers, workers or advocates, that response can not come soon enough.