A new report throws a spotlight on Canada’s growing army of "unfree" migrant workers.
They work jobs that could otherwise be done by Canadians and permanent residents but they don’t have the same labour mobility as citizens and landed immigrants.
Temporary foreign workers are tied to specific employers, and that’s the reason why many of them are cheated and abused, according to a report titled Access to Justice for Migrant Workers in B.C.
"The idea of ‘unfree’ workers, which perpetuates precariousness, has been linked to the erosion of labor standards in the workforce and some academics have opined that it has caused the clustering of migrant workers in particular industries where enforcement of employment standards is a particular problem," states the report prepared by the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association.
The Vancouver-based organization will present its report in a forum on Saturday (August 10) at the SFU Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver. The event starts at 1 p.m.
The WCDWA has traditionally helped workers who enter Canada through the Live-in Caregiver Program. It notes that in recent years it has seen a sharp increase in requests for assistance from other temporary foreign workers, including seasonal farm labourers and others employed in restaurants and hotels.
The WCDWA report notes that prior to the 1960s, migrant labourers were admitted to Canada as permanent residents. This changed in later years, as the country followed the global trend of importing temporary foreign workers.
Citing federal government data, the study mentions that more than 20,000 foreign workers came to B.C. in 2002. By 2006, the number rose to 31,013, and it increased to 46,378 in 2011.
Initial figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada indicate that in 2012, the arrivals rose to 49,488 in B.C. out of a nationwide total of 218,516.
This makes B.C. the second-largest host of temporary workers after Ontario, the WCDWA report notes, with Alberta in third place.
Unlike citizens and permanent residents, temporary foreign workers cannot leave and change employers at will. If they wish to do so, they must go through a difficult process of securing a new work permit.
"The supply of an ever-renewable workforce that has little ability to bargain for better standards tampers down wages and work conditions by essentially creating a disincentive for employers to invest in their workers and improve compensation and conditions," the study notes.
It points out that employment standards provided by legislation are no guarantee that temporary foreign workers are properly protected. The study states the "incentive for governments to strictly enforce employment standards is reduced when the workforce is predominantly temporary and migrant, and in some cases the reduction in standards can be deliberate".
The WCDWA report makes several recommendations to remedy inequities it says are inherent in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.
One is to allow migrant workers to "freely circulate" in the labour market. This means they would have to be issued open work permits.
"Short of providing all workers with open work permits, freedom of association could be facilitated by issuing sector-specific, instead of employer-specific, work permits," the WCDWA also recommends.
Its report underscores that migrant workers remain vulnerable to exploitation "as long as their legal status in Canada is tied to a specific employer".
"These conditions create drastic power imbalances between employer and employee," the report states. "Because workers’ ability to support themselves is tied to one employer, many workers are unwilling to leave bad working conditions because of the difficulty of securing a new work permit."