Immigration laws feed exploitation of workers: report

A report released yesterday says federal and provincial laws are failing to protect the increasing number of migrant workers being brought into Canada to do work that is in fact not as temporary as many people think.

Authored by Osgoode Hall Law School professor Fay Faraday, “Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity” examines the problems with the current migrant worker systems in place across Canada and makes 22 recommendations as to how it can be fixed.

The main recommendation of the report is that Canadian immigration policy must be reframed to ensure workers of all skill levels can apply to immigrate to Canada with permanent resident status.

“In the interim, as long as Canada and Ontario operate temporary labour migration programs to deliver migrant workers to Ontario workplaces, they must have real security, real access to their rights, and real access to decent work,” the report states.

The number of migrant workers in Canada has tripled in the past decade to 300,111 in 2011. About one-third of them work in low-skilled jobs in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and hospitality, according to the report.

Faraday says the way the migrant worker system has evolved in Canada has contributed to the multiple risks workers experience.

“A lot of the vulnerabilities these workers face are a made-in-Canada problem. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve created a system that puts them at risk and some of the pieces that can be put into the system to increase security are really quite simple.”

One of the suggestions is that the federal and provincial immigration laws be developed in unison.

“I think there is a good opportunity right now to look at how the two systems need to work together,” says Faraday. “Right now, they operate as silos where policy is developed separately and there isn’t a lot of communication of information back and forth that can ensure a clear enforcement of standards.”

On a more practical front, Faraday says workers need resources that explain their rights as soon as they set foot in Canada.

“Right now, immigrant workers come to Canada, are given virtually no information about what their rights are, no information about what the enforcement mechanisms are, and no information on what organizations exist on the ground in terms of who can help them.”

Other issues include the fact that workers are brought in on tied work permits and therefore can only work for the one employer named on them. “You can see how that is a disincentive to complaining about poor treatment,” says Faraday.

At the same time, the live-in caregiver and agricultural workers programs require people to live in homes provided by the employer, something that increases isolation and vulnerability since they risk becoming homeless if they complain.

Many recruiters also charge migrant workers to place them in jobs. They arrive in Canada and come to find the job they came for either doesn’t exist or is different from what they thought they were being brought in to do.

At the end of the day, Faraday says the bigger problem is that the jobs performed by migrant workers really aren’t temporary positions. They are core parts of the economy that can’t be sent offshore.

“We need to think about why it is we are characterizing this work as temporary and why we are not addressing the core issues that cause the labour shortages,” says Faraday.

“Are we contributing to the growing income gap instead of bringing in citizens with status who can help build a nation? The workers who are being brought in are people who were, two generations ago, people who immigrated and did these jobs with status. If the people are good enough to work here, why not good enough to stay?”

The report’s 22 recommendations include:

• Legislation must be extended to ensure that all migrant workers have effective protection against the charging of recruitment fees and to ensure that employers will be joint and severally liable for recruitment fees that have been collected by private recruiters.

• Provincial legislation, including the Employment Standards Act, should be amended to ensure that anonymous complaints can trigger investigations and to permit complaints to be filed by third parties such as community organizations and public interest groups.

• Provincial legislation, including the Employment Standards Act, should be amended to ensure that all disputes over the terms of migrant workers’ contracts can be heard before a single expert administrative body in an expedited process.

• Provincial legislation should be amended to ensure that migrant workers in all sectors have access to effective and meaningful legal protection for the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

• Rather than being excluded from Canada after four years of work with temporary status, migrant workers should have a right to apply for permanent residence.

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