By Daniel Tseghay
On December 16th, the Rising Up Against Unjust Recruitment coalition launched their campaign to highlight the mistreatment of migrant workers at the hands of third-party recruiters and a BC government that fails to enact policies to protect them.
Members of the coalition point out that charging people money to find a job in BC is in violation of the province’s Employment Standards Act, and yet that’s exactly what migrant workers in the temporary foreign worker program face. Because of barriers to information, many migrant workers aren’t aware that charging fees is illegal. They’re often charged thousands of dollars, ranging between $5,000 to $12,000, forcing workers to borrow from friends and family, and sometimes from moneylenders who charge high interest rates. These workers remain in debt for years upon reaching Canada. It’s creating a system of debt bondage, according to one member of the coalition, Alexandra Rodgers, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “It’s part of the racialization of migrant labour and the ongoing forms of colonialism that shape Canada.”
The initial recruitment fee is often the first step towards a greater crisis for workers. “When we finally came to Canada, we faced abuse at our jobs,” the coalition reports one migrant worker as saying on their website. “We lost our jobs, so we became jobless. When we lost our jobs, we did not have money and we also lost the place to live, so we became homeless.” The coalition is calling on the BC government to prevent this practice from continuing.
The background for this practice is a deeply entrenched system where migrant workers who are still in their home countries must secure a job and an employment contract with a Canadian employer before receiving a work permit. Connecting them with these jobs in BC are the recruiters. Often these recruiters are unlicensed and unregulated. It’s common practice for recruiters to misrepresent the job conditions workers agreed to – in part to charge higher fees – and sometimes they even provide no job at all, to the surprise of workers who arrive in BC after traveling great distances.
And because migrant workers are tied to a single employer, the fact that they’re brought to BC on the assumption that their working conditions would be better is especially troubling. They’re simply stuck in terrible conditions and have few legal routes to change it. The fact that their work permits and immigration status depend on whether Canadian employers request their labour, they’re afraid to try to access options to challenge their mistreatment. “[W]e are mute because the temporary foreign worker programs are taking our voices away,” says one migrant worker the coalition quotes on their website. “We accept insult, discrimination and everything without saying a word. If we do, the next year we won’t be back to work in Canada.”
“It’s a really terrible relationship they go into because there’s such a power imbalance,” Rodgers says. “Recruiters have all of this power in that they hold all of the information and access to jobs here in Canada.”
On top of this, the provinces complaint-driven model makes it incredibly uninviting for vulnerable migrant workers to access. Also, there’s a six-month limit on making complaints against BC-based recruiters so that, even if workers do want to make a complaint, it might be too late by the time they do.
There are, however, other provinces who are doing things better than BC. The coalition notes that Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta have legislation to better protect migrant workers, including enhanced regulation of employment agents who recruit migrant workers as well as facilitating proactive enforcement.
The coalition calls for an end to recruitment fees, saying that they recruitment agencies should be licensed in the province and provide financial security when they license with the Employment Standards Branch, allowing migrant workers to recover their fees. Also employers should be liable for repayment of fees.
The coalition also advocates for proactive enforcement as opposed to a complaint-driven model which depends on migrant workers to come forward. Among other specific recommendations, the coalition suggests allowing investigations of workplaces and issues penalties for recruiters that charge recruitment fees.
“In our campaign we’re emphasizing that even though this happens in international jurisdictions it’s still very much a Canadian issue,” says Rodgers, “because these recruiters are bringing them here and the recruiters are based out of here.”
If you want to help with the campaign, sign the petition and, if you are part of an organization, endorse the letter the coalition is sending to Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and Minister Responsible for Labour