A flash mob organised by No One Is Illegal Vancouver Coast Salish Territories, Justicia for Migrant Workers, and Philippine Women Centre on International Migrants Day in Vancouver, Canada. Caelie_Frampton/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)
Far from being an exception, the debate and efforts regarding trafficking in Canada have mainly focused on trafficking for sexual exploitation. In addition, most of the actions and concern have been centred around domestic ‘sex trafficking’ – that which affects Canadian citizens or residents or occurs without crossing national borders. It has dominated the landscape and driven the bulk of government actions, pushing out discussions of labour exploitation and other types of forced movement along the way.
The wind may be about to turn.
Making the headlines in the last few days is the case of a migrant farm worker injured in the workplace. Once injured, he lost his work permit and access to health care coverage – later dying from his injuries. Sadly, cases like his are not an exception. Cases of migrant workers injured on the workplace being ‘repatriated’ for health reasons to their home countries appear to be common.
In recent years, migrant workers, researchers and advocates have raised concerns regarding abusive practices – some of which are crimes often included under the umbrella term 'trafficking' – that are taking place within the government-regulated, temporary, low-skilled migration programmes.
Temporary and disposable workers
Canadian immigration trends and immigration policies have gone through important changes over the last two decades. Temporary labour migration has exploded, tripling since 2000, and now outpaces longer term/permanent immigration migration. Different programmes exist (for care givers, seasonal agriculture, temporary foreign worker programmes), and migrants can work in sectors as varied as domestic work, agriculture, food processing, restaurants, fast food service, hospitality, cleaning, tourism, and retail.
The expansion of the use of these programmes by Canadian employers has been followed by increased abuses of workers. Not only are work permits temporary and precarious, but they are also tied to a specific employer. As many other writers have pointed out on this site, tying legal status to a single employer severely limits the options available to workers facing exploitative situations or abusive employers. Oftentimes, housing is also provided or arranged by the employer. The recruitment industry flourished alongside these developments. These third-party, for-profit companies are notorious for engaging in fraudulent and abusive practices, such as demanding high fees and thus making workers even more dependent on their employment.
In 2014, an important overhaul of the temporary foreign workers programme was undertaken under the conservative government. But, as rightly pointed out by the Canadian Council for Refugees, this reform did too little to redress gaps in workers’ protection. The stated objectives were to provide more transparency, penalise employers that abused the programme, and ‘ensure that Canadian workers come first’ by restricting access to the programme. The reform also reinforced the temporary nature of the programme by reducing both the duration of individual work permits and the cumulative amount of time a low-wage temporary worker could spend in the country. The reform came in response to concerns from Canadian workers who feared the loss of jobs to migrants.
The reforms were theoretically supposed to institute more severe penalties for employers who have broken the rules – higher fines, risk of being banned from the programme, and more monitoring on work sites. Yet, it has failed to include measures ensuring that in cases of abuse the worker’s permit is not revoked, and it has failed to enhance workers’ access to remedies. The system still relies greatly on the complaint mechanism. And it is well known that migrant workers are unlikely to come forward and file a complaint, for fear of losing their job or even deportation. Further, while the reform had the promise to increase inspections up to one in four employers, still a low number of inspections have been carried out (340 between April 2014 and December 2015). On top of this, temporary migrant workers (except caregivers) are still excluded from the newcomers settlement services provided to other migrants.
It also has to be noted that provinces play an important role within the federal Canadian system. Labour standards, workplace health and safety standards, and recruitment agency regulations are all set at the provincial level. Some provinces have put in place specific regulations, although some of these are limited to certain sectors, such as live-in care giver programmes. Within the frame of the 2014 reform of the temporary foreign workers’ programme, the government communicated with provinces to inquire that regulations be put in place, but that is far from being enough.
Manitoba is an illustrative case that strong provincial legislation can change. This province has adopted a promising model, which includes proactive licensing of recruiters, registration of employers, and criminal investigations. One recent research report quoted a migrant worker as saying that while in other provinces, recruiters were charging between C$700 and C$8,500, in Manitoba no fees were required because recruitment fees are not allowed.
A tepid response
All of the above must be put against the overall backdrop of efforts to eliminate labour exploitation in Canada, which have been weak in many regards. There is currently no national system to collect data on, or offer assistance to, those deemed to be ‘victims of trafficking’ in Canada. Support services are coordinated through largely non-governmental initiatives at the local, regional and provincial levels. Until the adoption of the National Plan of Action in 2012, which set up an ‘anti-trafficking task force’, there was a political and institutional vacuum. No agency had a specific mandate regarding trafficking, with one striking exception: the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The RCMP is charged with not only coordinating law enforcement efforts nationwide, but also with raising awareness. To that end, the RCMP has undertaken two big campaigns to date regarding sex trafficking, but there has been no parallel effort for labour trafficking.
The key protection measure is the temporary resident permit, created in 2006 for those found to be trafficking victims, which lasts 180 days (renewable) and is not conditional (in theory) upon the cooperation of the individual with criminal investigations. At first glance this appears to be a strong protection measure, but it is hard to obtain (if not impossible if no criminal investigation is opened).
The importance of tackling demand
Tackling types of exploitation that can occur even with legal programmes requires us to address employers’ demand for cheap and exploitable workers. But demand has not reached yet the Canadian anti-trafficking landscape. To wit, it is not mentioned once in the National Action Plan. This gap is exacerbated by current migration policies that make it easier and faster to hire temporary and disposable workers.
The current government is now undertaking a review of the low-skill migration programmes. This is a welcome step, and a response to the ongoing mobilisation of migrant workers across the country. This bottom-up mobilisation has raised government’s attention (and awareness) to the ongoing maltreatment of workers under its migration regime. Let’s hope that the Trudeau government’s review of the programme will bring concrete measures to better protect the workers, and prevent abusive practices from the both recruiters and employers.