Migrant workers fear changes to limit their stay
Federal government is considering reforms that would make it harder for foreign labourers to work in Canada for more than 4 years
By Linda Nguyen
Canwest News Service
March 8, 2010
They arrive on the promise of good jobs, fair wages and an opportunity to support their families back home.
But thousands of migrant labourers — those who land in British Columbia to pick fruit, in Ontario to work in factories and on farms, or in Nova Scotia to cut Christmas trees — are anxiously waiting the outcome of a debate in Ottawa that could dramatically impact their ability to work here.
“These changes put the onus on the workers when the government should really be protecting them,” said Chris Ramsaroop, who is with the outreach group Justica for Migrant Workers. “It makes workers more fearful to speak out against the work conditions they face because their contracts won't be extended, or they'll be sent home.”
One migrant worker from Thailand, who came to work on an Ontario mushroom farm three years ago, said he hopes Ottawa will make it easier for foreign workers to apply for Canadian citizenship.
“There's nothing waiting for me back home. I just wish I'm allowed to stay and continue my work,” said the man, who did not want his real name used.
He makes $9.50 an hour and pays income taxes.
Last October, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced proposed changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. But since Parliament was prorogued, those proposals have not yet been dealt with.
One proposed reform includes making workers who have been in Canada for four years ineligible to work here again for at least six years. Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesman Doug Kellam said workers who want to stay in Canada for more than four years need to go through the same citizenship application processes as everyone else.
“In general, the idea is that a temporary foreign worker, by nature, is here temporarily. For people who are looking for paths to permanent residency, there are several ways, and they will have four years to have the opportunity to apply,” said Kellam. “This notion that temporary foreign workers should be here on an ongoing basis is not what we're trying to encourage.”
Other proposed revisions to the program include: banning employers who abuse migrant workers from participating in the program for two years; putting new time limits on some foreign worker programs; and deporting migrant workers if job offers prove false.
“These changes serve a couple of purposes,” said Kellam. “They're intended to protect temporary foreign workers from abuse and exploitation.”
The ministry is reviewing public input on the changes.
According to the latest statistics, there were more than 70,000 people who came to Canada on temporary work permits in 2008, with the majority of the migrant workers arriving from the United States, Mexico and the Philippines.
No One is Illegal — a group that supports non-status residents — estimates that there are upwards of 300,000 migrant workers across the country, working in greenhouses, tobacco and mushroom farms, chicken factories, fast-food restaurants, construction sites, the Alberta oilsands and providing nanny services. As many as 10,000 foreign workers came to help build the Olympic facilities in Vancouver, the group says.
“Some have been here for 12 to 15 years; some have worked here for eight months,” said No One is Illegal spokesman Syed Hussan. “They're live-in caregivers, agricultural workers, refugee claimants, students who decide they want to stay and work. They're in the back of our restaurants as chefs, dishwashers and cleaners. They're in our oilsands. They're the backbone of some of these industries.”
He said these workers are treated like an “expendable labour source” by Ottawa. “These workers are fully taxed, fully exploited.”
The lack of job security and their tentative immigration status makes it even harder for these workers to speak out against issues such as unsafe work conditions because many feel their rights are less than those with citizenship, said Hussan.
Karl Flecker, the national director of the Canadian Labour Congress, said migrant workers have little recourse against employers, who can threaten deportation.
“Workers who speak up about the number of hours they work, their lack of proper vocational training, or refuse unsafe work may be painted as unscrupulous workers,” said Flecker. “All the employer needs to do is put a call in to the Canada Border Services Agency, say these employees aren't working out, and they're out of the country. This fear creates a situation of unequal power.”