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Temporary Workers, Permanent Problems  by Sandhya Singh
Temporary Workers, Permanent Problems

Laura came to Canada from Mexico to work as a seasonal apple picker under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. She fell on the job, and her legs were crushed by a tractor. While she was in the hospital, a Mexican official tried to coerce her to sign documents to give up her right to treatment and benefits in Canada and return home. The goal was to save her employer from increased workers’ compensation premiums.

Labour unions and workers’ advocacy groups have documented hundreds of cases of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Canada. Stories like Laura’s are representative of migrants’ experiences when they come to work in Canada.

“The exploitation is not isolated and anecdotal. It is endemic. It is systemic,” concluded a September 2012 report, “Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity,” by labour and human rights lawyer Fay Faraday.

“It is no accident that these conditions exist,” she notes, in reference to the changes made to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in the last 10 years. “[They] are profoundly oppressive and are entirely predictable outcomes given the system we have created.”

Although some parts of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are more than 45 years old, a number of changes have been made in the last decade. The program allows foreign workers to be hired in Canada on a temporary basis and includes a number of streams, four of which allow entry to low-skill workers. The oldest and perhaps most widely known streams are the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which started in 1966, and the Live-in Caregiver Program which has its roots in a program begun in 1981.

However, in 2002, the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training was introduced, and it’s taken off like wildfire. No longer a pilot program, it has since been named the Stream for Lower-Skilled Occupations.

Unlike the two previous sector-specific programs, this program is open to more than 30,000 job titles covering over 500 job categories listed in the National Occupational Classification developed by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Organizations critical of the new program include the Canadian Labour Congress, which claims that any job in the Canadian labour force is open to temporary workers.

Indeed, migrant workers are now pumping gas, serving food at Tim Hortons, Denny’s, McDonald’s and Dairy Queen, cleaning hotels, packing fruit, growing flowers and killing hogs. From greenhouses in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. to slaughterhouses in Alberta and Manitoba, migrant workers are now a vital part of the workforce across the country. And they number more than 300,000.

Migrants under the Stream for Lower-Skilled Occupations are given two-year visas, which are renewable for an additional two years. They have almost no pathway to permanent residency in Canada, however. And, while the program was designed to respond to short-term labour shortages, employers can hire new migrant workers to replace ones whose terms have expired.

“Clearly, it is only the workers that are temporary,” says Faraday, “not the jobs.”

In 2006, for the first time, the number of migrant workers entering the country exceeded the number of immigrants granted permanent resident status. So, while Canada maintains a strict quota on the number of new immigrants allowed entry, there is no quota on the number of migrants that can be hired annually. As a result, the number of migrant workers has more than tripled in the last 10 years. There were 89,746 migrants working in Canada in 2000; in 2011 there were 300,111.

According to University of Guelph associate professor of sociology Kerry Preibisch, the percentage of women involved during the pilot project phase increased from 33 percent in 2002 to 40.5 percent in 2007.

In their 2012 film documentary The End of Immigration?, producers Marie Boti and Malcolm Guy highlight the fact that immigrants who entered Canada in the 1940s and ’50s on the basis of their ability to perform the same types of jobs now being done by migrant workers would no longer even qualify for permanent resident status. This change represents a major shift in Canadian immigration policy. Now, only migrant workers who come to Canada as managers, professionals and skilled workers can apply to immigrate. There are few options for those who enter under the new stream, as only some provinces admit lower-skilled workers in specific occupations under their provincial nominee programs.

Another shift is the huge increase in the number of countries sending workers to Canada. According to Preibisch’s analysis of 2009 Citizenship and Immigration Canada data, in the first year of the pilot, migrants from 52 different countries took up jobs in agriculture and food processing. By 2007, that number had grown to 75.

While the number of migrants and the range of occupations they perform may be surprising to many Canadians, it is the working and living conditions that are most alarming to workers’ rights advocates. Gina Bahiwal and Kyla Bahingawan are migrants from the Philippines who work at a greenhouse packing fruits and vegetables in Leamington, Ontario. Featured in The End of Immigration?, they describe their experiences in

Canada as “difficult and terrible.” They received little information about the program before coming. Each paid between $4,000 and $5,000 to a recruiting agency in the Philippines to get the opportunity to work in Canada, even though Canadian regulations strictly prohibit this. “Before we came, they told us, never tell anyone that you paid something in the Philippines or else you will be deported,” Bahingawan said.

Another change is that, while the seasonal workers program was regulated by agreements between the sending countries and Canada, the new Stream for Lower-Skilled Occupations is largely managed by employers and recruiters. As a result, there is no systemic government follow-up and no appeal process for workers who are dismissed.

It would be an understatement to say that this makes workers vulnerable. Their contracts bind them to a single employer and to living in employer-provided housing—often at great profit to the employer. Like Bahiwal and Bahingawan, many temporary foreign workers arrive unaware of their rights, and government regulations designed to protect workers and ensure fair treatment are not enforced. Understandably, temporary foreign workers are afraid to complain because they fear losing their jobs. They therefore tolerate violations of their rights rather than speaking up.

Bahiwal and Bahingawan were approached a second time by their recruiter, who claimed they had to pay $1,500 more, this time to get a document called a labour market opinion so that their contracts could be renewed. The women refused to pay, since they were aware that getting the documents is an employer’s responsibility, not the workers’.

Eventually, Bahingawan lost her job and, with few options left, she applied to the Live-in Caregiver Program. In order to qualify, she needed to take a course that cost her $8,000. Because of the vulnerabilities inherent in the temporary worker program, the Live-in Caregiver Program, which has long been criticized for the potential and actual exploitation of its workforce, is now seen by many as a less bad option.

A long list of migrant workers’ complaints has been documented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Canadian Labour Congress and Justicia for Migrants. The list includes unpaid overtime; being paid lower wages than promised in their contracts; being made to work longer hours than allowed in employment-standards legislation; and being made to work in hazardous working environments, sometimes without proper safety equipment.

Further exploitation occurs when workers are forced to live in substandard, overcrowded or overpriced rental facilities owned by their employers. There are many documented cases of employers renting the same rooms out to both day shift and night shift workers, resulting in severely overcrowded facilities. In one case, there were 18 adults sharing a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house.

Workers have limited access to social services, as local community organizations are not mandated or resourced to provide them with adequate services. Many work in small towns, where social isolation is an issue. As workers of colour, they also face racism and xenophobia.

It is not only unions that have criticized the program. Fundamental problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program were highlighted by Canada’s auditor general in 2009.

“Little is being done to catch the abuse occurring on all sides of this program,” Sheila Fraser concluded. “Workers are particularly vulnerable, given they often don’t speak English and owe their status in Canada to their employer.”

She also criticized the federal government for not following up to ensure that employers were meeting the conditions of employment outlined in the workers’ contracts.

The program has also come under increasing fire from the public after media reports exposed employers’ apparent misuse of the program, in particular by HD Mining and RBC. These examples fuelled arguments by unions and other workers’ rights advocates, who said employers are using the program to bring down wages and reduce workers’ rights, rather than to respond to genuine labour-market shortages. Recently, Ottawa responded to public criticism by eliminating regulations that had allowed employers to pay skilled migrants 15 percent less than the prevailing wage and pay unskilled migrants five percent less.

In her report, Fay Faraday concludes, “There is a deepening concern that Canada’s temporary labour migration programs are entrenching and normalizing a low-wage, low-rights ‘guest’ workforce on terms that are incompatible with Canada’s fundamental charter rights and freedoms, human rights and labour rights.” Naveen Mehta, UFCW general counsel and human rights director, describes the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as “indentured

labour at best; modern-day slavery at worst.”

When Laura, the apple picker, returned to her home in Mexico, she was told that because she sought help in support for her case, she was barred from the program. “When workers assert their rights they do not get called back,” says Evelyn Encalada, cofounder of Justicia for Migrants, a grassroots advocacy organization for migrant workers.

Employers select by gender as well as by country, and women in the agricultural sector are chosen to work in greenhouses sorting tender fruit. As a result, says Faraday, “the program reinforces racialized and gendered stereotypes about who can do what work.” The UFCW has noted that there is further segregation within workplaces, where employers select, for example,

Jamaican men as pickers and Mexican women as sorters and packers to reduce socialization among workers. Evelyn Encalada’s 2011 report, “Vulnerabilities of Female Migrant Farm Workers from Latin America and the Caribbean

in Canada,” illustrates the additional challenges faced by female migrants. Many women who perform farm work come from rural communities where there are few income-earning opportunities. In many cases, they are the primary providers for their families. Labour migration provides necessary income opportunities but creates emotional stress, as women must find alternative care for their children. Even though they strive to provide for their families, women are often accused of being “bad mothers” for leaving their children.

In Canada, they are aware that biases in the selection of workers favour men, and this fear is often exploited by employers, who sometimes threaten to replace them with male workers. As a result, Encalada observes, they overwork themselves trying to outperform male workers. The report concludes that it is women who are most often subjected to exploitative working conditions. Encalada reports that women migrants also experience sexual harassment that goes unreported. Their mobility is more restricted than the men’s, and they are subject to stricter curfews, too. Justicia for Migrants has documented cases in which an employer has checked women workers’ rooms at night or has installed cameras in their private quarters.

Seeking medical services also poses potential threats to employment.

“When we need to take women for medical care, particularly for sexual reproductive care, it’s like organizing a heist,” says Encalada. The women are careful to hide any evidence of sexual activity, she explains, including possible pregnancies. Justicia for Migrants has documented cases of women being deported when their pregnancies were discovered by their employers. “The result is that women take their health care into their own hands,” Encalada states. Encalada, Mehta and Faraday all agree that the transnational context is important in understanding the experience of migrant workers. Encalada contends that Canada has been complicit in creating the global economic conditions that force migrants to export their labour. Mehta wants Canada to develop a more robust immigration program, one that would provide workers with greater opportunities to invest in the Canadian economy and to participate in nation building.

Faraday contends that the problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are not inevitable. Rather, she says, they are made in Canada and are the results of choices deliberately made by governments in developing its labour and immigration policies. The new program has been in place for 10 years now, and we have seen the results, she says.

“It’s time to choose again.” 

This article is from Herizons Fall 2013 issue. Buy a copy here.