Migrant Workers

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Number of exploited temporary foreign workers triples

Over 300,000 temporary foreign workers easily exploited and 70,000 face largest mass deportation in Canadian history.

Temporary Foreign Workers: Canada currently accepts more migrants under temporary permits than those allowed to immigrate permanently. The number of temporary migrant workers tripled over the past decade. This is a revolving door system; while more workers are brought in under exploitative conditions, many are being swiftly removed. As a result of the federal government’s recent ‘four in and four out’ rule, an estimated 70,000 low-wage migrant workers now face the possibility of expulsion. This is one of the largest mass deportations in Canadian history.

In a recent landmark case initiated by Justicia for Migrant Workers, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded over $200,000 to two Mexican migrant workers for sexual harassment and a sexually poisoned work environment at Presteve Foods Ltd. This is the largest damages award in the tribunal’s history. The two sisters faced repeated unwanted sexual solicitations, forcible and non-consensual hugging, kissing and rape by the owner of the fish processing plant.

Tribunal adjudicator Mark Hart emphasized that the women felt obligated to accept the owner’s sexual advances because they did not want to be sent back. He wrote how, “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.”

What happened to Workers Immigrating Permanently?

In 2012, the federal government revamped the Federal Skilled Worker Program, including eliminating pending applications made prior to February 27, 2008. Nearly 280,000 applications were completely wiped out, and applicants waiting almost a decade were told to reapply under new guidelines. Kathy Sun, an IT manager from China, described the impact on her and her family, “We spent a lot of time and effort on that and suddenly they tell us, you’ll be wiped out. I can’t express how I feel. It’s like, the end of the world.”

In 2015, the government created the Express Entry System that largely gives employers the power to choose which workers are able to apply for permanent residence as immigrant workers. From a pool of applicants who meet the initial requirements, employers’ can cherry-pick who they want to come to Canada permanently as workers. Dubbed an online-dating system for immigration, it replicates job market discrimination by downloading many immigration decisions to private employers.

Capital, on the other hand, can move freely across the Canadian border. After scrapping the Immigrant Investor Program, which had been labeled by critics as a “cash for citizenship” program, the government introduced the Immigrant Investor Venture Capital program. Applicants to the program are required to have a minimum net worth of $10 million and make a non-guaranteed investment of $2 million over approximately 15 years into a fund managed principally by the investment arm of the Business Development Bank of Canada. Applicants who can show they have a “legally obtained” net worth of at least $50 million can request an exemption from one of the program’s four requirements.

For the first time, in 2008, more migrants arrived through migrant worker programs that grant temporary status than via avenues that grant permanent residence. The number of temporary migrant workers Canada tripled from 101,100 to 300,210 over the past decade, though it still comprises less than two percent of the overall labour force. The number of non-permanent residents who entered Canada in 2013 (460,663) (not counting visitors) greatly exceeded the number of those who arrived as or became permanent immigrants that year (258,953).

Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and workers in the International Mobility Program comprise the fastest growing constituency of non-permanent admissions to Canada, with the lower-skilled streams seeing one of the biggest increases.

Kendra Strauss, a research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, reports that “the number of TFW [Temporary Foreign Worker] positive labour market opinions doubled between 2005 and 2012 in sectors like manufacturing and mining, oil and gas, and increased more than sevenfold in construction. Even more striking, though, is the increase from 4,360 to 44,740 during the same period in accommodation and food services positions.” Thus, low-waged migrants increasingly arrived in Canada in situations even more precarious than under previous governments.

Changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program

Over the past five years, the federal government has introduced a number of changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

None of these reforms address persistent problems resulting from the precarious legal status of temporary foreign workers. Workers remain tied to a single sponsoring employer, making it challenging to leave abusive or exploitative situations; accommodation is often of poor quality and/or expensive; workers have no access to collective representation or guaranteed access to social services or labour protections; and workers are not granted permanent residency upon arrival. Many migrant workers in the agricultural, food processing and caregiving sector make below minimum wage and work without overtime pay.

As Winston Morrison, a migrant worker and member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, explains, “The issue isn’t migrants taking jobs from citizen workers, it’s migrant workers being exploited and abused. That’s what migrant workers and their allies have raised for over a decade. It’s obvious that the Federal government refused to listen to the voices of migrant workers.”

“The issue isn’t migrants taking jobs from citizen workers, it’s migrant workers being exploited and abused.”

In 2011, the federal government announced the ‘four in and four out’ rule that bars the renewal of work permits for foreign workers who have been working in Canada for four cumulative years. As a result of this policy, as of April 1, 2015, any low-wage temporary foreign worker who arrived in 2011 or earlier would not be able to renew their work permits, and an estimated 70,000 migrant workers now face the possibility of expulsion. This is one of the largest mass deportations in Canadian history. Furthermore, work permits for lower-waged workers will now only be issued for one year. This entrenches the temporariness and revolving-door system of immigration.

National-level media attention involving RBC and Tim Hortons led to a growing chorus of ‘Canadians First’ (including Conservative MP John Williamson, who complained that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was leading to “brown people” taking away the jobs of “whities”). Informed by such xenophobia, a number of changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program were announced in June 2014 that further marginalize, scapegoat, and criminalize migrant workers:

  • One of the significant changes is a 30 percent cap, to be decreased to a ten percent cap after July 2016, on migrants who fall under specific streams in the new low-wage worker category. This limits the employment of lower-waged workers in workplaces where there are more than 10 workers.
  • In regions where the unemployment rate is more than six percent, no new permits will be issued for lower-waged workers. This means that workers already in the country can’t get permits to change jobs within the same industry, further locking them into exploitative work relationships.
  • A more comprehensive labour market test, the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), is replacing the Labour Market Opinion and will cost employers more ($1000 to $2500). This cost will likely be downloaded to workers, as there is no national recruiter regulation framework.
  • An increased emphasis on criminal investigations gives Canadian Border Services Agency an expanded mandate and twenty additional officers to police the program. The result is more raids on job sites, increasing the risk of deportation for undocumented workers or workers at a work-site other than that of their authorized employer.

These workers have had to leave behind their families in order to simply bring food to their table.”

Hessed Torres, a migrant caregiver, explains the impacts of these changes, “Over the last few years, Canadian immigration has churned out what can be considered a revolving door of cheap, flexible and exploitable labour. Yet, migrant workers are willing to put their lives on the line just to work in this country. These workers have had to leave behind their families in order to simply bring food to their table. They are often the subject of racial slurs and are considered to be stealing jobs from Canadians… Instead of deporting and excluding migrant workers from labour struggles in Canada, the solution to the struggles for wages and job security that are shared (to different degrees) by both resident and non-resident workers might be found in joining these struggles together.”


Changes to the Live-In Caregiver Program

Major changes were also announced to the Live-In Caregiver Program in 2014:

  • The program requires that workers complete two years of work in Canada and a one-year Canada-based care-work training prior to being eligible for residency, as well as stricter education and language requirements.
  • When caregivers apply for permanent residency, they must wait up to 18 months to obtain an open work permit. The longer it takes, the longer they are banned from working in other occupations. The lengthy delay puts live-in caregivers in more precarious positions as they are not legally authorized to work elsewhere.
  • Even when caregivers fulfill restrictive criteria, they no longer have a guaranteed right to permanent residency. The federal government’s two ‘pathways’ for permanent residence for caregivers are capped at 5,550 permanent residency applications each year. This means that even if caregivers meet the stringent requirements for residency, they will be deported if the quota has been filled. According to an immigration department internal memo, the processing time for caregivers’ permanent residency reached a record 50 months in January 2015, up from 26 months a year ago.