November 17, 2014

News | February 3, 2014
Temporary foreign workers face challenges in Canada
Organizations push for rights of migrant workers
Written by | Visual by Alice Shen and Tanbin Rafee

On December 31, the federal government’s latest amendments to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) came into effect, including a change that prevented employers who had criminal convictions in human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee, or causing the death of an employee from participating in the TFWP; however, the change was later dropped.

The TFWP was introduced in response to Canadian employers who claimed they could not find sufficient qualified workers in Canada, and allows employers to bring non-Canadians to work in the country for a limited time under temporary work visas.

However, the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) of Montreal, whose mandate includes educating workers about their rights and improving their living and working conditions, believes that the TFWP is a ‘revolving door’ immigration policy that breeds precarity among the workers in the program. As such, the IWC assisted with the creation of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association (TFWA), which had its first general assembly on November 23, 2013.

“It is a form of indentured slavery, which becomes more prominent when the worker gets into a labour dispute with an abusive employer.”

“The best people that can fight for our rights as temporary foreign workers [are] the same temporary foreign workers,” said Helena Sanchez, head representative for TFWA Montreal and a temporary foreign worker, in a phone interview with The Daily.

Sanchez came to Canada from Spain under the Experience Canada program, which provided her with a temporary open work permit. Even though it is a work-holiday program, Sanchez said that most Europeans come to Canada for the work and not for the holiday.

“It was super difficult to find a job, just because of the visa. I got this special number, which starts with a nine, that says that you are a temporary foreign worker,” Sanchez explained. “Employers don’t want to employ you, because they know that you would be obligated to leave the country in a year.”

“It’s cool that you have an open visa, but when you have an open visa not associated to any employer it means that you’re not going to have services. And [even] after a year I couldn’t go to [the] hospital. I paid all my taxes all year, like a normal Canadian [resident, but I had] no services, health insurance. I [had] absolutely nothing,” she added.

According to Neil LaDode, a representative from TFWA and a migrant worker who is not working under the TFWP, another problem workers like him face is the isolation they encounter in the workplace.

“We want to have equality; not only equal [in] the system, but also [free] from the stigma. We want the confirmation that temporary foreign workers need to be welcomed well, from the government as well as from the society,” LaDode said in an interview with The Daily.

Other than an open temporary work visa, workers can also have closed visas tied to specific employers; however, Sanchez said that the closed work permits seem to give an unfair advantage to the employers with regards to controlling the rights of their employees.

“You are in the hands of your employer. He or she decides when you are coming, when you are leaving, what are your rights, and what aren’t your rights,” she added.

Adrienne Gibson, associate researcher at Migrant Workers’ Rights Quebec (MWR), believes that the Conservative government has decided to prioritize the demands of employers through the TFWP, rather than immigration programs which bring foreign workers and families on permanent status.

“I have the right. It’s just that they try [to make sure you do not] know what your real rights are in Canada.”

Although on paper all temporary foreign workers are supposed to have access to all the same protections as Canadian workers, Gibson told The Daily that, in reality, that has never been the case for about 50 per cent of them.

“The fact that some of these workers can be sent home at any time upon the employer’s request, without access to an impartial review of the decision to repatriate them, is a huge obstacle and is an example of how the TFWP seems to be unconstitutional, in our opinion,” Gibson said in an email to The Daily.

According to Joey Calugay, community organizer at the IWC, even having closed work permits could be problematic for temporary foreign workers.
“Most have closed work permits which tie them to one employer. Their ability to stay in Canada is tied to that employment. It is a form of indentured slavery, which becomes more prominent when the worker gets into a labour dispute with an abusive employer,” said Calugay in an email to The Daily.

“The worker is immediately faced with the choice of fighting for their rights and perhaps losing their employment, and thus their right to stay and continue to have an income to support themselves or their families, or to remain silent and simply endure the abuse and exploitation,” Calugay continued.

Sanchez explained to The Daily that when she went to renew her visa, she encountered problems at the Canadian border. “I [got] to the border, because in this program, you have to get out of the country, and then come back to process your visa. [Border services] told me that I should have private health insurance, because without my private health insurance, it would be impossible to get into the country. […] But in [IWC], they told me […] if you have a permit, if you have a job, you have a right to have public health insurance,” Sanchez explained.

“I have the right. It’s just that they try [to make sure you do not] know what your real rights are in Canada,” Sanchez continued.

In December 2011, the Quebec Commission on Human Rights and Youth Rights issued a legal opinion stating that various aspects of these programs violate the Quebec Charter of Human Rights. Apart from that, while organizations like the IWC and MWR are investigating the legality of the TFWP, to date, no legal action has been taken against it.

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