By Daniel Tseghay and Samantha Ponting
Like many others, Jhing came to Canada from the Philippines to work. She came after paying for her own flight, and she expected stable employment through Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program as a live-in caregiver.
She was overcharged by recruiters. After being placed with an employer, her salary was withheld. When she challenged one prospective employer, they told her she wasn’t needed anymore.
Like countless others, Jhing has been exploited by a broken system.
Without work and a place to stay, migrant justice organization Migrante BC offered Jhing a home. Although she now has a new employer, she speaks of what must change so no one else faces what she has.
On June 1, the Liberal government wrapped up its review of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, launched May 11 and conducted by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills, and Social Development and the Status of Person with Disabilities. The report is scheduled to be released June 16.
But the review’s process has been plagued with problems. It’s failed to meaningfully consult those most affected by the program – migrant workers themselves. While MaryAnn Mihychuk, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, has called the review “full-scale,” the reality is that the process has barely touched the surface in its investigation into problems within the program.
Of the over 100,000 low-waged migrant workers working in Canada, only five migrant workers testified before the committee. Only 30 guests were invited in total. It’s clear the voices of migrant workers have effectively been marginalized within the process.
The review, announced in February, 2016, took place entirely in Ottawa, making it difficult for migrant workers to attend.
While the Liberals have used rotating public hearings for other policy reviews, the committee’s refusal to travel expresses the committee’s half-hearted efforts to engage in any meaningful fact-finding.
“At least three groups in BC who work with migrant workers have made formal requests to appear as witnesses, however none of them have been selected,” said Natalie Drolet, Executive Director West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association (WCDWA), during a press conference held in Vancouver.
Conservative MP Mark Warawa of Langley-Aldergrove and Liberal MP Dan Ruimy of Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge both sit on the standing committee and refused requests to meet with migrant worker groups.
And it comes as no surprise that on June 3, Immigration Minister John McCallum visited Saskatoon for a consultation with the Canadian Council for Refugees, and refused an invitation to attend its National Forum on Migrant Worker Issues.
Our federal politicians are failing migrant workers.
The fact that migrant voices have been institutionally excluded at best or deliberately silenced at worst raises serious concerns around what the review’s report will look like. If it doesn’t hear from those directly-impacted, will its conclusions fail to speak to the community’s concerns?
Migrant workers are working in across multiple provinces in a vast array of industries, including manufacturing, agriculture, caregiving, construction, hospitality and food services, and retail.
Migrant workers’ experiences with the system are shaped not merely by the range of categories within the temporary foreign worker program – all with different parameters, conditions, and rights attached – but also by shifting industry standards, employer conduct, and province-specific regulations, including employment standards and enforcement. This equates to uneven access to health services, legal advocacy and employment protections.
Injured migrant farm workers navigating the WSIB in southwestern rural Ontario have dramatically different experiences working in Canada than domestic live-in caregivers working in Vancouver’s urban centre.
The voices of five migrant workers before the committee is simply not representative of the complex and diverse realities facing migrant workers across Canada.
Depending on the industry and province, some migrant workers have the right to unionize while others don’t.
But what remains consistent are the exploitative practices.
Migrant farmwork in Surrey, BC
Otilio Hernandez-Morales, a migrant farmworker at a Surrey farm, worked packaging onions, carrots and potatoes. He was assaulted by his supervisor, who hit him in the head 7-10 times.
When he called the police, they did very little. Instead of dealing with the problem, the owner of the farm offered him pizza and asked him to keep the incident quiet. When Hernandez-Morales raised the issue with the Mexican consulate, asking to be transferred, they told him he’d have to go back to Mexico first.
So now he feels trapped.
“I feel pressured, because the employer is always checking me,” he says. “When I go out he asks me where I’m going.”
Hernandez-Morales’ story speaks to the necessity for open work permits within the temporary foreign worker program to better protect the safety of migrant workers.
Tied work permits apply to migrant workers across the country, making a worker’s immigration status is dependent on their employment at a single workplace.
Migrante BC and the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association (WCDWA) are part of the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada. Open work permits are among the coalition’s reform proposals.
“The situation of being tied to one single employer creates a new type of slavery,” says Raul Gatica, Coordinator with Migrant Workers Dignity Association.
Because workers are so fearful of losing their immigration status, they feel compelled to heed more demands from their employer than they typically would.
“In the case of the farmworkers,” Gatica says, “the work permit tied to one single employer gives the owner or the employer the whole right and power to manage the working hours, the living conditions for the worker, the time they can get groceries or who the worker can talk or associate with.”
“It doesn’t matter what rights or laws are written. It’s the law of the owners that prevail,” says Gatica.
In addition to open work permits, the coalition calls for permanent residency for all workers, access to employment insurance, maternity and parental benefits, an end to deportations, an end to the four year restriction on work permits, and other interim and long-term measures.
While the deadline for input in the federal review has passed, there’s still a lot the public can do prior to and after June 16, when the review’s recommendations will be released.
Jane Ordinario, coordinator with Migrante BC, spoke with Rankandfile.ca about the importance of continuing to expose the issue.
“We would like this to be a Canadian issue and not only an issue for the TFWs,” Ordinario says. “Once everybody is talking about it, hopefully the government will act.”
“The government can always do something when there’s pressure. As long as we put pressure on them – that’s the only chance we have.”
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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada did not testify before the standing committee. RankandFile.ca regrets the error.