Abuse of migrant workers ‘endemic’ in Canada, new study says
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The moment Liliane arrived in Toronto from Uganda as a live-in caregiver, her boss seized her work permit and passport. For two years of work, she was only paid a total of $2,100.
Senthil Thevar was promised $15 an hour by a recruiter in India to work as a chef in a Toronto restaurant. Instead, he only earned $8 hourly, sharing accommodation in a cold basement, with no vacation and holidays.
On paper, Tanzanian taxidermist Juma was supposed to make $16.08 an hour to make animal specimens in Canada. His boss wrote him a $3,168 paycheque each month, but Juma must immediately withdraw the money and pay it back as “my taxes.”
It might seem these migrant workers just happened to be struck by bad luck — and unscrupulous employers. But a new report released Monday by the Metcalf Foundation says Canada’s current immigration and labour laws virtually doom temporary migrant workers to mistreatment.
“The exploitation is not isolated and anecdotal. It is endemic. It is systemic,” the report says.
“The depths of the violations are degrading. There is a deepening concern that Canada’s temporary labour migration programs are entrenching and normalizing a low-wage, low-rights ‘guest’ workforce.”
Migrant workers in Canada have tripled in the past decade, to 300,111 in 2011 — about one-third of them in low-skilled jobs, according to the report titled “Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity.”
While stories of migrant worker abuse are not new, the study by Osgoode Hall Law School professor Fay Faraday examined the legislative and regulatory practices to get to the root causes of the issues faced by migrant workers like Liliane and Juma, who are profiled but not fully identified in the report. Thevar, who was also profiled in the report, has spoken to the Star previously and has agreed to be identified by his last name.
“This is the road map for understanding how these workers’ insecurity is built by law. The law doesn’t only create vulnerability but it fails to address exploitation and allows it to flourish,” said Faraday, who specializes in constitutional law, human rights and labour issues.
Canada has several programs to bring in low-skilled temporary migrant workers: live-in caregivers, seasonal farm workers and a 10-year-old pilot project that lets in workers in diverse sectors such as agriculture, restaurants, food processing, cleaning, construction, road building and tourism.
Those who come in through the pilot project are among the fastest growing group, rising 22-fold from 1,304 in 2002 to 28,930 in 2010, the most recent figure available.
Unlike the caregivers and farm workers, Faraday said, other low-skilled migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they have no access to permanent residency and there is little program oversight by Canada and the foreign governments where these workers originate.
“The evolution of these temporary migration programs shows a progressive stepping down in government’s commitment to workers and government involvement and accountability in program administration,” the report noted.
“While government creates the conditions which allow the migrant work relationships to be formed, the supervision of the relationship is increasingly privatized between employer and worker.”
The report concludes it is key to grant migrant workers permanent resident status upon arrival to address their precarious working conditions and exploitation.
It also recommends a stronger legislation to govern worker recruitment like the one introduced in Manitoba, sector- or province-specific work permits that allow migrants freedom to choose employers and the right to unionize and bargain collectively.
“The fundamental recommendation of this report is that workers of all skill levels must have access to apply to immigrate and to arrive with full status as permanent residents,” Faraday said.
The Metcalf Foundation, a Toronto-based private family foundation, invests $5 million a year in projects and research in performing arts, environment and improving the lives of low-income peoples.
How Manitoba protects migrant workers
• Recruiters and employers are banned from charging or passing fees to migrant workers.
• Employers cannot hire a foreign worker without first registering with the province and providing details about the business, attempts to hire Canadians and duration of the job. The federal government will not process unregistered employers' applications for work permits.
• No recruiter can recruit foreign workers without a provincial licence and no employer can use a recruiter who is not licensed in Manitoba. Licenses are only valid for one year to ensure ongoing monitoring.
• Recruiters must deposit with the province an irrevocable $10,000 credit, which will be used to pay back fees owed to a migrant worker if the law is breached.
• Employers are required to submit each worker’s name, address, phone number, job title and work location into a data bank to facilitate monitoring.
migrant workers, Exploitation, vulnerability
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General relevance - all sectors
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Policy analysis, Documented cases of abuse, and Current Policy
- Geographical focuses