Opposing unfree labour: A nationwide campaign for migrant worker rights

By Daniel Tseghay

Yesterday, a new organization, the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights – Canada (CMWRC), called on Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to end the practice of tying migrant workers to specific employers. They’re kicking off the campaign, MoVE – Mobility, Voice and Equality for Migrant Workers – with five press conferences across the country. They’re asking people who support the campaign to email Trudeau.

Photo: Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP), and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) all sign contracts saying they may only change employers with permission. But, the process is incredibly difficult and lengthy.

Workers can’t change jobs until they find another employer willing to go through the arduous process of applying for and receiving a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which allows the employer to fill positions with migrant workers. The employer then has to wait until the worker can receive an amended work permit. The process takes months and many employers are not willing to spend the time or effort to lend this kind of crucial assistance to their employees.

Workers in the SAWP can only change jobs with permission from their current employer, their intended employer, HRSDC, and the government agent representing the migrant workers’ home country. More importantly, the system is designed to prevent these agricultural workers from obtaining permanent residency and staying in Canada for longer than eight months at a time.

In the meantime, migrant workers are not authorized to pursue employment elsewhere and are subject to deportation if they attempt subvert these rules. Consider that part of the changes instituted by the outgoing Conservative government involved bolstering the powers and budget of the Canada Border Security Agency (CBSA) to help enforce these new provisions in the law. Because of the pressure to provide for families in countries fleeced by Canada, these workers are often left with two options: remain in an exploitative position or seek employment elsewhere, lose one’s status, and risk deportation.

“[S]ome migrant workers end up moving back and forth across the status/non-status divide during their time in Canada,” writes Fay Faraday in a widely cited 2012 report, Made in Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity. “This heightened precariousness around their immigration status leaves these workers even more vulnerable to abuse,” the report continues.

“It’s really modern-day slavery for the temporary foreign worke,” says Jane Ordinario of Migrante BC in an interview. Migrante, which organizes with workers in the Live-in Caregiver program and those in the low-skilled TFWP, working in restaurants, farms, Tim Horton’s, and other service sectors, is a part of the Coalition.

Ordinario talks about the fear these workers have of challenging their bosses and the restrictions they face being of their tied permits. “Some of the employers who have multiple business bring workers to different locations and of course they cannot say no because if you rock the boat you’ll be in limbo.”

Even when the employer is not violating work conditions or withholding wages, being tied to a single employer is burdensome. It also represents a continued shift towards an employer-driven immigration process. In agriculture, like poultry and other industries, the migrant workers are only needed for certain periods of time. An employer might even hire a migrant worker to do a job that does not even last the full duration of their permit, leaving these employees in even more precarious circumstances.

And the restrictions go beyond just which employer you can work for. Those in the SAWP regularly have curfews and can not have visitors of the opposite sex. “For the duration of their employment,” writes Nandita Sharma about the Low-Skill Pilot Project of the TFWP, “workers are told that they should ‘avoid’ joining any group or association, should not show signs of what the employer considers ‘disrespect,’ and should not have sexual relations.”

The Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights therefore demands some very important changes, like making it easier for workers to change jobs, which would mean open, rather than tied, work permits. It is urging a transition towards permanent immigration status upon arrival for migrant workers.

“If there’s permanent status upon arrival, the issue of vulnerability will be eliminated because they will be able to access benefits, have rights, and they won’t be treated as second-class citizens,” says Ordinario. The Coalition also calls for an end on work term limits. For those in TFWP, they can only work for four years before having to leave the country. In the SAWP, the limit is eight months.

It is widely acknowledged that these the restrictions facing migrant workers, especially being tied to a single employer, would be considered unconstitutional if applied to Canadian citizens.

“With the organization of national difference through state categories,” writes Sharma, “the Canadian nation-state can simultaneously be a liberal democracy and an authoritative state.”

Of course, there have been some promising developments recently. Last month, Trudeau promised to make family reunification easier. And the LCP no longer requires that workers live in the same residence as their employer. But there’s clearly a long way to go. This coalition’s call on the new government to oppose such a discriminatory and unequal system which only fosters insecurity, lowers wages and work conditions for all, is undeniably a welcome initiative.

“As an advocate, and as a former temporary foreign worker,” says Ordinario, “I need to do something to change this situation and that’s why we support the Coalition’s campaign.”

To join the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada’s call to end the discrimination against migrant workers, send a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau here.



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