An Interview with Syed Hussan

May 19, 2015

11130090_855374657875602_1334900252873900602_nSyed Hussan organizes with Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Canada’s largest migrant workers rights coalition working for justice and status for migrant workers, as well as with No One Is Illegal, a grassroots migrant justice organization.

This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.

CCLA: What are the most common problems with the ways migrant workers are recruited, based on your observations and your  work as an activist?

SH: The biggest concern for racialized, poor and working class people in migrant worker programs, i.e. the live-in caregiver program (LCP), the seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP) , the temporary foreign workers program (TFWP) in the low-waged stream, and other programs where they are often on temporary work authorization permits is that there is no ability to live in Canada permanently, with the rights and services that come with that. That is, people cannot be reunited with their families, cannot get basic services like healthcare, and education, and do not have comprehensive labour rights. What we need is full immigration status on arrival for migrant workers; full access to all social entitlements and protections; and labour protections that understand and respond to vulnerability to deportation.  

Temporary Foreign Worker Programs are either state-to-state, as with the SAWP or are privately managed as with the LCP and TFWP. For example, a worker in Hong Kong wanting to come to Canada, would find a recruiter that is connected with a recruiting firm in Canada, which in turn would findan employer looking for a Caregiver. The recruiter charges huge sums of money to the Caregiver, the going rate is 2 years worth of local salary, so between CAD$ 3,500 – $7,000 and about  $1,000 to the employer. In some cases, when the worker lands in Canada, there is no employer on the other end, they’ve been duped, lost their money, and then must find a new employer in a matter of months or leave.

In order to pay these large sums of money, entire families go into debt, possibly putting up their houses for mortgage or taking loans from loan sharks. In the case of Thai or Indonesian workers coming in the TFWP to work in agriculture related industries, the going rate is closer to $10, 000 – $12,000.

As you can imagine, these workers are completely unwilling to complain about bad bosses, or dangerous working conditions because speaking out may result in losing their jobs, and returning home with the debt stilling hanging over their family’s heads. So recruitment fees serve as a overall downward pressure on all aspects of workers asserting their rights.

The worst thing about all of this is that despite their being ongoing focus on these issues, most provinces have chosen to do little to nothing. In Ontario, it’s only on November 22, 2015 that a specific law will bar TFWPs from paying fees, despite this being a widely known issue for at least eight years. But this law will largely fail to protect workers because like all other laws, it relies on workers to complain. Ontario does not license recruiters and does not register employers, which is what Manitoba does. As a result, it cannot force recruiters and employers into compliance. So much work needs to be done. Specifically employers and recruiters must be jointly, financially liable so that the buck is not passed over to a recruiter abroad.

CCLA: What are the most common abuses that occur in relation to working conditions for migrant workers?

SH: The abuses are enormous and vary by industry and by province as labour law is provincially regulated. Some of the key issues that are occurring in most provinces and industries, other than recruitment fees, are with respect to wages, health, housing, and the ability of migrant workers’ to assert their rights. I explain them below in general terms, as specifics would require an examination of individual provincial laws.

Across all sectors, migrant workers face wage theft. That is, they work long hours, but don’t get overtime pay. They work on holidays but don’t get public holiday pay. Migrant workers also often get paid less than local workers doing the same jobs. Many migrant workers, particularly those in the agricultural sector many migrant workers are excluded from minimum wage laws.

Many migrant workers don’t get healthcare for the first three months they are in the province (as is the casein Ontario).  and often do not get healthcarewhen they are renewing their work permits or between permits because of flaws in the coordination of healthcare and immigration policies. When these workers get injured in the job, they are not protected. Live-In Caregivers are excluded from the Occupational Health and Safety Act in Ontario. Workers compensation is difficult to get, and particularly when workers are forced to leave the country it’s de facto impossible without tremendous advocacy and legal support. Thus workers get injured here, and are forced to leave. In general, migrant workers face enormous stress as a result of being away from families and loved ones, and are forced to work long hours, with little ability to actually do much else. This causes significant untreatedmental health issues.

Most migrant workers live in employer homes, or employer provided and controlled homes. This means a lack of privacy, few boundaries between work and being off-work, a lack of internet, and rare access to cooking facilities. In most cases, general laws around tenancy protections exclude migrant worker housing. Few guidelines exist to regulate employer provided housing, allowing bosses to house workers in the cheapest way possible. This results in farmworkers being housed alongside pesticides, caregivers living in cramped quarters and temporary foreign workers having exorbitant fees taken from their wages in the name of rent.

Agriculture workers are not able to collectively bargain in much of the country. Caregivers are also unable to bargain as a sector, and cannot form unions as they are single employees. In general, when workers speak out, they get deported, or don’t have their permits renewed. Where protections against such reprisals exist in law, they do not work in practice because they do not account for the timelines that workers must leave the country by, and do not understand migrant workers’ specific vulnerability to deportation.

CCLA: How do legal protections for migrant workers differ from those in place for Canadians and individuals with permanent residence?

SH: Under federal immigration law, migrant workers on temporary work authorization cannot live in Canada permanently. Those in low-wage jobs cannot bring their families over. Work permits bar people from getting an education or upgrading their degrees. Work permits are often time-limited, placing an arbitrary deadline on people’s lives and relationships.

Migrant workers also pay in to Employment Insurance and the Canadian Pensions Plan and have little to no access to those benefits. One study found that just the people in the SAWP and their employers paid over $300 million into E.I. that they didn’t get.

In addition, migrant workers are demonized in Canadian society. The mainstream media, politicians and organizations of all stripes can echo collectively that migrant workers are ‘stealing’ jobs from Canadian citizens without an ounce of truth to the matter, without being held to account for fanning the flames of xenophobia. While saying that ‘immigrants’ are stealing jobs is no longer acceptable in Canada, saying that ‘foreign workers’ is almost entirely unquestioned. No legal mechanisms exist to correct this injustice.

I’ve outlined some additional differences in the legal protections, particularly at the provincial level,  between permanent residents and migrant workers above.

CCLA: Will the reforms to the temporary foreign worker program announced by the government in 2014 help to protect migrant workers?

SH: Let’s be clear, there were no reforms. Rather, the changes announced for workers in the TFWP in June 2014, and for migrants in the LCP in November 2014, as well as the changes announced for TFWP and migrants in the International Labour Mobility Program in early 2015 have resulted in two key things: (1) migrant workers are locked in to bad jobs, and (2) migrant workers are even less able to get permanent residency or assert their rights.

As there are a lot of changes, let’s look at just two of them. One of the changes is that as of July 1, 2015, any workplace with more than 10 employees will not be able to get new work-permits for low-waged workers amounting to more than 20% of their workforce. So in factories where there are a 100 workers, eventually 80 of people on migrant worker programs would have to be laid off. Right now, bosses are telling workers that they need to work harder, and outshine others so that they are selected to be part of the 20%. As you can imagine, this means even more dangerous conditions, and even less pay. It also means that workers that expected to be in Canada longer, will be returning home with huge recruiter debt. Fewer work permits in a sector, also means that workers can’t switch jobs if they have a bad boss. So migrants are stuck working harder, unable to assert rights, unable to switch jobs, and eventually will have to go underground or go home with recruiter debt.

The second change is that as of November 2014, the Feds imposed a cap on the number of Caregivers that can get permanent residency and increased the requirements needed to apply. As a result, domestic workers will come to work in the country, hold down a job for four years, but will be forced to leave after. This turns the clock back on migrant workers to 1973, because since then the law has been that if you fulfill the requirements, you get permanent residency. This benefits no one. On top of that, caregivers are now divided into those that care for children, and those that care for the elderly and the sick. In doing so, nurses and personal support workers who would have previously come to Canada with permanent status, are now being pushed into temporary permits. This is further devaluing of women’s work, and care work.  

CCLA: What is the “four in and four out” rule, which came into effect on April 1st, 2015, and how is it expected to impact migrant workers?

SH: As of April 1, 2015, all migrant workers in Canada in low-waged jobs and on Temporary Foreign Worker or Live-In Caregiver permits are barred from working in the country for more than four years. All those that have been in Canada for longer than that face mass deportation. They will also be banned from returning to work in Canada for four years. Those that choose to stay will become undocumented.

These changes are effectively a mass deportation. These rules are tearing apart families, friends and communities across the country. Migrant workers pay tens of thousands of dollars to come to Canada and work at minimum wage jobs to provide an opportunity for their family; so that their children can go to school and can have a better life. The 4 and 4 rule strips away migrant workers’ dignity, forces workers already in precarity into further uncertainty, and imposes discriminatory and arbitrary barriers on how long workers can stay here.

That these migrants have worked in Canada for four years proves that their jobs are permanent, not temporary. These friends and community members deserve permanent residence, not deportation. This 4 and 4 rule entrenches a revolving door immigration policy, employers can simply replace current workers with new workers.

What has been inspiring is that migrant workers and their allies have responded by massive organizing and thousands of people have signed petitions, and come to rallies and protests in their support.

CCLA: What are the community services available to undocumented workers? 

The lack of permanent resident status, and the limits on work permits means that many migrant workers are forced to make the difficult decision to stay in Canada without full immigration status. Often, its in between permits, where they may even be allowed to stay in the country, but not work, that workers must engage in work that is considered undocumented simply to survive.

Doing so means living inconstant fear of detentions and deportations. Often even fewer services, rights or protections are available for people and families living or working undocumented.

Recently Toronto and Hamilton have been declared Sanctuary Cities and a few other cities are expected to join them. Not only does it give people access to a few more services, it turns the tide on the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric coming from all quarters. Sanctuary City policies are stepping stones to provinces creating laws and regulations that provide equal rights and protections to migrants without full immigration status.

Undocumented people in Ontario can learn their labour rights here, undocumented people in the GTA can find services accessible to them here, and undocumented people across the country can learn about how to better protect themselves from immigration arrest and detention  here.