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Temporary foreign workers are a vital part of Canada’s workforce at many different levels, including Seasonal Agricultural Workers who help get local food into the homes of Canadians. While the temporary foreign workers or “migrant workers” are only allowed to enter and work in Canada under a specific government program designed for temporary labourers, the gap they fill in the workforce is permanent, year after year. Some migrant workers have been a part of this program for decades. Despite this, and the necessity of these workers to the Canadian economy, their rights are not adequately protected. Officially, these workers are subject to the same legislation as any worker in Canada, however the lack of recourse for migrant workers who experience a violation of their rights under current legislation creates a precarious situation for them. As stated by the Canadian Council for Refugees “rights without enforcement are no rights at all.” The discussion of migrant workers rights below is primarily addressing migrant workers rights in Ontario.
The importance of Migrant Workers’ Rights to Labour Rights in Canada
The protection of labour rights in Canada is undermined by the fact that discrimination based on citizenship status, while technically illegal, is often experienced by migrant workers. These workers have the freedom for example, to change employers as a matter of law but often their employment contracts and visa conditions prevent them from moving to a different employer without risking deportation. Migrant workers technically have access to health care under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, however many have testified to a culture of fear where they do not report illnesses because they do not want to be laid off or sent home because they were unable to work. Workers are also reluctant to report abuses or to speak freely to regulatory agencies or investigators who interview them. Their movement has also been reported to be restricted with some employers insisting that the workers cannot leave their accommodations at certain times.
The Impact of the Covid 19 Pandemic
Covid 19 and the resulting changes have had a major impact on the lives of many migrant workers. They were required to pay for testing before entering the country, which became a barrier and a source of stress for many workers. The living conditions of many migrant workers were not compliant with measures taken in other congregate settings for the safety of those living there. The mandatory 14-day quarantine caused immeasurable suffering for many workers who were kept in prison-like conditions for the two weeks and some employers attempted to take back the pay that workers were entitled to for those two weeks. This quarantine pay was provided to employers by the federal government to help ensure compliance with Covid 19 quarantine measures. Other workers report and increase in workload including longer hours to make up for the loss in labour that employers were experiencing due to travel restrictions. The federal government has set up a mechanism for workers to report violations of Covid 19 protocols, however speaking out about these issues can lead to a dismissal. Gabriel Flores was one such worker who was sent back to Mexico for reporting on the conditions at Scotlynn SweetPac Growers. He fought back against his employer and was awarded damages for lost wages and wrongful dismissal. For many migrant workers however, Flores’ case represents a cautionary tale of deportation, loss of income and having to go to court to assert their rights.
There is further information on migrant workers rights to wages, accommodation, and healthcare. Please note, the rights outlined here are specific to farm workers and other agricultural employees.
Migrant workers in Ontario are entitled to a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour regardless of the role they are working in. Depending on if the worker is a supervisor, worker, labourer, technician, higher or lower skilled worker then the legal minimum wage may be higher. A full list of the wages that employers are required to pay migrant workers and different rates by province are listed here.
Employers are not required to pay for a migrant workers transportation or food costs. Employers will sometimes offer to pay for all or a part of the worker’s flights and other transportation costs, but they are entitled to recover these costs from the worker. The employer has the right to deduct this amount, as well as the recently added costs relating to Covid 19 travel restrictions and testing, from the worker’s pay.
Migrant workers will see tax deduction on their pay cheques as well. They pay into the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and Employment Insurance and are entitled to the benefits of these programs while they are in Canada, but not once they leave.
Temporary foreign workers, specifically low-wage workers, have the right to employer-provided accommodation. The employer has the right to charge the worker for these accommodations, however there is a legal requirement they should be affordable for the worker.
Some employers do not provide safe and adequate accommodation and those employers should be reported. The following kinds of housing conditions and workplace abuse should be reported:
- Unsafe living conditions, including unsanitary conditions
- Restrictions on where you can go and when
- Sexual harassment or abuse
- Physical abuse
- Unsafe working conditions, including inadequate training
Certain organizations are working to improve the rights of migrant workers, including with regards to overcrowding and lack of privacy in the living space. Anyone can and should report these types of work and living conditions to the government tip line and to organizations that are not affiliated with the government, which are listed in the last section of this page. Migrant workers can also contact the employment ministry in their province directly to raise concerns.
Migrant workers have access to OHIP and healthcare services. This means that if a migrant worker is injured while working or experiencing any health issues, they have the right to seek out nearby medical care. They are entitled to receive the same quality of care as a citizen or other resident in Canada. Migrant workers are at times unsure or unaware of this fact and do not seek medical treatment which can have negative effects on their health long term.
While workers have access to medical care, workers report that employers have sent workers home for the season, terminating their contracts, for not being able to work while they are sick. This can create a barrier to accessing medical care. However, employers are not allowed to fire someone for getting sick and healthcare providers are required to maintain the patient’s privacy. If a worker is sick, they should seek out healthcare with the knowledge that their employer has no right to information about their health. If a worker is experiencing any issues with accessing health care, they should reach out to a migrant workers rights’ organisation or a local Service Canada office for support to report a violation of their rights.
Reporting mechanisms for abuse of rights
Anyone who is facing or anyone that knows that a worker is facing abuse of their rights at work can report the abuse. An employer is not legally allowed to punish someone for reporting an abuse of rights, however, a complaining worker’s identity is not revealed their employer in any case. An abuse rights can include:
- unsafe working conditions
- lack of safety training
- withholding pay
- sexual or physical harassment
- verbal threats
Any of these issues should be reported and the government will attempt to investigate if they have enough information to do so. Anyone can make an online report here or call 1-866-602-9448.
If a migrant worker is concerned with reporting such an abuse to the authorities or wishes to contact support organizations, below is a list of organizations that are active across Canada, with a brief description of how they can support migrant workers.
Organisations for Migrant Workers
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
This MWAC is made up of migrant workers and allies from civil society, union, and research organisations. They are working for large scale policy changes to benefit migrant workers, but they also have information for migrant workers about day-to-day issues that migrant workers may face.
Migrant Rights Network
This is a group of organisations fighting for status and rights for all, including migrant workers and undocumented people. They support migrant workers trying to organise for justice.
Migrant Resource Centre Canada
The Migrant Resource Centre is a non-profit organisation that provides education to migrants around developing workers associations, they provide information to workers about immigration and social services issue and lastly they are involved in research to further the cause of migrant workers.
UFCW: Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA)
Toll free: 1-877-778-7565
The Agricultural Workers Alliance at UFCW offers support to migrant workers. They are a union made up of both domestic and migrant workers. They have a useful survey on their website to determine if a worker is facing an abusive work situation and a way to contact them about the issues.
By Guest Author Nadia Ahmed
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