By Samantha Ponting
On Feb. 17, the federal government announced in mainstream media that it will conduct a full-scale review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). The Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada (CMWRC) is calling on the Liberal government to reveal details of the review process, and prioritize the voices of migrant workers.
“At the end of the review there should be an improvement in the living and working conditions of migrant workers in Canada,” says Syed Hussan of the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada.
As reported by the CBC and Globe and Mail, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychuk has indicated that she will request reform proposals from the parliamentary committee on human resources, skills, and social development. Yet details surrounding the review process, particularly the scope of the review, its mandate, and its timelines, have not been reported.
“It’s very unclear what the review will look like. Will it be special advisors? Will it be members of parliament? Will it be case workers? What scope will it cover? Temporary foreign workers? Live-in caregivers? Agricultural workers?”
“There’s a lot of workers on work permits,” says Hussan.
The coalition is calling for migrant workers’ voices to be a driving force behind the review process.
According to Hussan, “A number of employer and lobby groups have been pushing for increased access to migrant workers without a correlated increase in rights.”
“It’s important to us that the conversation not become how many workers will it be, as if immigrants are commodities, but rather, what are the specific rights and access to justice that migrants need to be able to live healthy happy lives,” he says.
In 2014, the Conservatives introduced limits to the proportion of low-wage TFWs employers can employ. By July 1, this will be capped at 10 per cent of an employer’s total workforce, with some exceptions applying.
“We really want this to be a moment where we celebrate the contributions and honour the work and the people.”
Yet some groups have been scapegoating migrant workers for broader problems, says Hussan.
“We saw a serious rise in xenophobia whereby migrant workers were consistently pitted against the quote-un-quote local labour force. Unionized workers on one end, migrant workers on the other.”
According to Hussan, “There are 1.3 million unemployed citizens in the country and less than 100,000 low-waged migrant workers. So we’ve seen migrant workers be used as political tools.”
Over the course of their rule, the Conservatives implemented major reforms to the TFWP, constricting access to the program through fees, stricter time restrictions and employment caps.
In 2011, the Conservatives imposed the 4 in and 4 out rule, placing a four year limit on the work permit of TFWs, and requiring workers to wait four years once their contract has expired to return to Canada.
“In effect, people who had a root, people who had families, were uprooted, or forced to live in the country without immigration status,” says Hussan.
In November, 2014, the government removed live-in caregivers’ right to access permanent residency after 24 months of employment. Annual caps – 5,000 people per year – were installed, limiting the number of live-in caregivers entitled to permanent residency. This cap falls below previous rates.
The West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association (WCDWA), a CMWRC member that provides legal assistance and performs advocacy for live-in caregivers, has called for the elimination of this cap.
Natalie Drolet, executive director and staff lawyer of the WCDWA, says that the government should transition live-in caregivers to permanent residents upon their arrival, and caregivers should be able to bring their families with them to Canada. She says family separation lasts approximately seven years for live-in caregivers.
“It is unconscionable that our government forces children of caregivers to be separated from their mothers for so many years while caregivers are taking are of other peoples’ children in Canada,” says Drolet.
The Conservatives expanded the Temporary Foreign Workers Program to include the Agricultural stream, which allows farmers to hire workers from countries outside Mexico and the Caribbean, from places such as Thailand, China, and Indonesia.
Workers return to their home countries following the expiration of their contracts, and do not have right to permanent residency status. Under the Agricultural stream of the TFWP, only higher skilled positions, such as “management, professional, and technical occupations,” can access permanent residency.
“A bad system was made worse by the previous government,” says Hussan.
The coalition is calling for substantial reforms to the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program. They are requesting that TFWs be granted immediate permanent immigration status upon entry, and removal of the 4 in and 4 out rule.
“We are also calling on the government to undue the harm that the previous government did. All of the discriminatory laws,” says Hussan.
Employers must now file Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) in order to hire TFWs, which judge if there is a need for foreign labour.
The Harper government also increased the fee for a LMIA to $1000, up from $275, which Hussan says is often downloaded onto the workers themselves.
In addition, Drolet says live-in caregivers are often required by employers and recruitment agencies to pay for job placements.
“Tied work permits have also created an industry of unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers,” says Drolet. She says caregivers are charged an average of $5000-$6000 for a job in Canada. Some workers are released without work once having arrived, after high fees have been collected.
Drolet says tied work permits make it very difficult for live-in caregivers to switch employers.
“Under the current system, caregivers are tied to their employers, which is a form of indentured labour,” says Drolet.
She says that processing time for a new permit and a new LMIA can take around seven months, during which time live-in caregivers are not permitted to work.
Open work permits is a major demand of the coalition, which could help decrease abusive employee-employer relationships.
“Open work permits are critical for caregivers so that they can leave employment situations that are abusive or exploitative,” says Drolet.
Under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program, migrant workers cannot change employers without facing major barriers, and can be sent home by their employer with little notice.
The CMWRC was formed in October, 2015. It is the only major national body that coordinates migrant advocacy groups and migrant workers across provinces. It has members in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, PEI, and Manitoba.
Visit www.migrantrights.ca to sign the petition calling for permanent immigration status and open work permits for migrant workers.