Every year thousands of people come to Canada on temporary work visas, many hoping to work towards permanent residency. Whether they are looking for a better life for their families, a lifestyle they couldn’t find in their country of origin, or simply want to earn enough to send home, Canada seems like a place of dreams. Unfortunately, the reality is often very different.
“Since migrant workers don't enjoy the same legal status and protections as permanent residents, so they are at higher risk of abuse by employers who take advantage of their vulnerability," lawyer Fay Faraday, author of the Metcalf Foundation report Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers' Insecurity, said.
The report shows that many migrant workers don’t know their own rights and so end up in situations where they are paid less than minimum wage, working in dangerous or illegal conditions and not being given rights such as regular breaks and days off. Individual workers are rarely able to bring their family with them, so they end up supporting two households.
From a nanny whose passport was seized, to the worker who had to pay more than half his wages back to his boss for “taxes” – anecdotal evidence is backed by research to show that across Canada migrant workers are being misled and taken advantage of.
“The exploitation is not isolated and anecdotal. It is endemic. It is systemic,” the report said. “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.”
It is also exceptionally difficult for a worker who is considered unskilled to work their way towards permanent residency, according to the report. Instead, these labourers are cycled in and out of the country, rather than being given a chance to stay long term. This system hurts Canadian industry, the report said, because it means higher turnover and training costs for those companies requiring more labour than is available locally.
"Cycling a renewable pool of precarious workers in and out of the country is not a model for building a sustainable economy, for building secure communities, or for building a nation," Sandy Houston from the Metcalf Foundation said. There was insecurity at every stage of the labour migration cycle because the law fails to prevent practices that “undermine worker security”, she said.
"It's time to put an end to this type of exploitation," Faraday said. "It's a Made in Canada problem - it reflects the way immigration and labour laws and policies fail to adequately regulate Canada's migrant labour market. But there is a Made in Canada solution."
One major problem was that federal immigration laws and provincial employment laws often worked at odds with each other, rather than working together. The report suggests 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.
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 to a data bank to facilitate monitoring.
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