Commentary | Use and abuse

The life of migrant workers in Canada

I used to think of Canada as a country that could do no harm, as a place of equal opportunities, a place with a surplus of equality. A screening of The End of Immigration at Cinema Politica Concordia showed me otherwise.

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘migrant worker’? The United Nations’ broad definition of a migrant worker is a person pursuing work outside of their home country. However, migrant workers’ experiences in Canada are much more difficult than this overly simplistic definition suggests.

Becoming a migrant worker in Canada is a long process that begins in the labourer’s home country (most migrant workers depicted in the movie are Filipino). They first submit an application to one of the many employment agencies that select applicants to forward to potential employers in Canada. What most people don’t know is that alongside these applications and countless interviews, the applicants also have to pay hefty sums of money to the employment agency; one worker testified that she had to pay more than $5,000 to an employment agency. The same worker was later threatened by her employer in Canada with deportation if she ever disclosed to anyone that she had paid any sum of money to an employment agency.

After the agency finds a job, the migrant workers are sent to Canada and given lodging with other migrant workers. They are then expected to pay more money under the table to their new employer. Jonathan, a migrant worker interviewed for the documentary, said that he and his three roommates had to split rent of around $1,600 a month, while the apartment next door, in the same complex, went for around $750 a month.

Even worse, migrant workers get paid less for doing the same job, for the same hours, as their Canadian counterparts. They are also often paid less than minimum wage. The migrant workers that worked on the construction of the Canada Line (a rapid transit line in Vancouver) were paid a measly $3.50 an hour for difficult manual labour; most of these people also had families to feed back home. At a meatpacking plant in Red Deer,  Alberta, a migrant worker is paid $11.50 an hour, while a Canadian citizen is paid $18 an hour for doing the same work. One migrant worker said he packed around 500 cow tongues a day – work he found degrading and physically exhausting. The twist is that he cannot switch employment without breaching his original contract, which results in deportation, no questions asked. A lawyer who was interviewed for the film said that this is essentially slave labour.

Worse still, these migrant workers’ contracts do not permit them to even apply for a Canadian permanent residency. The same labour lawyer attributes this to an “elitist system that makes it impossible for migrant workers to obtain a permanent residency” – the Canadian government accepts migrant workers within its borders only to “use, abuse, and throw them out.” The only way for these workers to have their rights heard is through rallies that they, or their Canadian supporters, hold in the streets. But rarely anyone listens, and the problems remain.

The question posed by the filmmakers still stands: are we going to abuse workers in Canada, or treat them with respect and acknowledge their vital role in our society?

Ralph Haddad is The Daily Health & Education editor. He can be reached at ralph.haddad@mail.mcgill.ca. The views expressed here are his own.


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