Commentary | Temporary work, chronic exploitation

Unpacking Canada’s migrant labour program

In 2011, Senthil Thevar was recruited from India to work in a restaurant in the Toronto area. He was paid below minimum wage, not given adequate time off, and forced to live in a cold basement, as reported by the Toronto Star. Not only is his story tragic, it illustrates the types of abuse that temporary migrant workers are vulnerable to in Canada.

Thevar came to Canada as part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, in which Canadian recruitment companies enlist temporary workers – mainly from the global south – to work in jobs unfilled by the Canadian labour force. These labourers are employed in a diverse array of industries across Canada including agriculture, hospitality, and live-in caregiving, and can stay in the country for a maximum of four years. In 2010, there were over 5,000 migrant workers in Quebec alone.

As migrant workers, they are highly susceptible to workplace abuse like unfair pay, wrongful dismissal, and unsafe working conditions.

At first glance, it seems these workers have access to the same rights as all other Canadian employees. Before an employer brings most temporary migrant workers into the country, they must notify the federal government that the worker’s wage is similar to a Canadian wage in that field, and that working conditions are in line with Canadian standards. Further, constitutionally ingrained fundamental freedoms – like freedom of assembly, which includes the right to unionize – also apply to migrant workers.

However, migrant workers’ ability to stay in Canada temporarily is restricted by their residency permit, which dictates who they can work for, as well as what region of the country and what sector of the economy they can work in. According to a Metcalf Foundation report by Fay Faraday, an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, fear of losing their job discourages migrant workers from challenging unfair employee treatment like pay violations and hazardous work.

The report cites a survey of migrant workers in the Toronto and Windsor area in which 22 per cent of the workers indicated receiving pay below minimum wage.

Faraday’s report also lists a study of migrant agricultural workers in Ontario in which almost half of them were not given protective equipment, despite working with chemicals and pesticides. Additionally, only 24 per cent of these labourers who experienced work-related injuries requested compensation from their employers. When asked about why they didn’t pursue their compensation more stringently, the injured workers cited fear of losing their job and ability to take part in the agricultural foreign worker program.

Migrant workers’ motivation to demand their rights is further inhibited by the fact that, frequently, they live with their employers, which forces many workers into acquiescence of their bosses’ demands. This asymmetric relationship was evident in Thevar’s situation.

The Metcalf report lists 22 suggestions to curb migrant worker abuse. While the report was centred around Ontario, some suggestions have nationwide implications. Faraday calls for migrant workers to receive cohesive information about their rights upon arrival in Canada. In addition, she suggests that the federal government could make tied permits more flexible so that migrant workers can work for a different employer in the same sector or region than originally planned.

With over 300,000 migrant workers in Canada vulnerable to abuse, the provinces and the federal government need to explore suggestions similar to the Metcalf Foundation’s, or else incidents like Thevar’s risk being repeated.

Zach Lewsen is a U3 Political Science student and a former Commentary and Compendium! Editor. He can be reached at zachary.lewsen@mail.mcgill.ca.


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