Canada’s unions: Migrant workers in Canada deserve equal rights, protections

December 18, 2023

Canada’s unions are marking International Migrants Day by calling for greater protections and improved conditions for migrant workers engaged in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

Thousands of workers come to Canada each year to work through the TFWP; Statistics Canada reports that temporary foreign workers represented around one-quarter of all agriculture workers in 2021. Many of these workers face exploitation and abuse.

Following a visit to Canada earlier this year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata reported that “the agricultural and low-wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) constitute a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

Last year, migrant farm workers from Jamaica working in the Niagara Region expressed similar grave concerns in an open letter to Jamaica’s Ministry of Labour. The workers were seeking increased support, stating: “As it currently stands, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) is systematic slavery.”

A significant issue impacting migrant workers is employer-specific work permits, which bind migrant workers to a single employer. These work permits grant the employer control over the employment, compensation, working conditions, and immigration status of the migrant worker. Permits such as these can bar migrant workers from job security and mobility and make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by unscrupulous TFWP employers, labour recruiters and labour traffickers.

“It is imperative that, as a nation, we commit ourselves to upholding the rights and well-being of all workers, regardless of their immigration status,” said Larry Rousseau, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress. “It’s time to put an end to employer-specific work permits that ensure migrant workers remain in precarity and at risk of exploitation, abuse and mistreatment.”

Employer-specific work permits make it impossible for migrant workers to exercise their rights as workers and seek protections while working in Canada. Legitimate concerns about getting deported or losing employment traps these workers in involuntary servitude.

This exploitative system gives employers steady access to vulnerable migrant workers with precarious work and immigration status. This has led many TFWP employers to use the program as an ongoing business model, as opposed to a program of last resort to fill acute and temporary labour skill shortages.

On this International Migrants Day, Canada’s unions call on government to take concrete steps to enhance the protections afforded to migrant workers as it relates to the low-wage Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) streams:

  • Replace the employer-specific work permits with open work permits;
  • Provide permanent residency opportunities for low-wage workers; and
  • Provide permanent residency opportunities for former low-wage workers who are undocumented.

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