Skip to main content

NDP Immigration Critic Jenny Kwan, seen here meeting with Guatemalan migrant workers on May 24, 2019, said she would like to see the government go even further than open work permits for all, and consider giving permanent residency to anyone who qualifies to come to Canada for a job.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

The Liberal government is expanding a program to allow foreign workers who’ve been exploited or abused in Canada to get out from under their employer’s control.

Most foreign nationals here temporarily working at low-wage jobs on farms and in the service sector are bound by law to work only for one employer. That has put many at the mercy of bosses who take advantage of their lack of options by underpaying them or making them put up with intolerable working or living conditions.

Starting next week, temporary foreign workers who find themselves in abusive job situations will be able to apply for open work permits that will allow them to find other jobs in Canada. This will expand a pilot project that started in British Columbia in 2016 and has granted 51 such permits up to November of last year.

The move follows a Globe and Mail investigation – published in April – that revealed how 45 recruiters and consultants stood accused of exploiting more than 2,000 foreign nationals in Canada in recent years for their money, their labour, or both.

Investigation: How foreign workers fall prey to a sprawling web of labour trafficking in Canada

“No worker should fear losing their job when they are being mistreated in their place of work,” Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in a media release. "Today, we say, fear no more.”

While migrant-worker advocates applaud that, many still believe the new program won’t stop the abuse. The FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto is one of scores of agencies that have been calling on the government for years to allow temporary workers to seek jobs with any employer, at least in a particular sector, as soon as they arrive.

“There are systemic issues that keep the system in a vicious circle and keep making these things happen. We recognize the good intentions here by the government, but it is not enough,” said Luis Alberto Mata, who handles human-trafficking cases at the refugee centre.

Mr. Mata pointed out that workers must still endure abuse before they can even apply for a new open work permit. They also have to find their way to an advocacy organization to help them build their case because foreign nationals can only apply for the new permits through designated agencies.

“We are sad and we are worried to see that once again, the [immigration] officer is going to have the final decision. The worker has to prove the abuses," Mr. Mata said.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has estimated about 500 abused workers will apply for the new permits each year across the country.

Manuel Burgos came to Canada from Honduras five years ago; he said he worked under intolerable conditions for the first three at a farm in Ontario.

He is claiming refugee status because he said his brother was killed in Honduras over a debt Mr. Burgos owes to the recruiter in his home country who got him into Canada.

But he now has an open work permit and a good job working in construction.

“My work is way better now," Mr. Burgos said. “It’s better pay. I don’t feel that pressure – because I have the open work permit, I am free and I have choice. I can change the job when I want."

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said she would like to see the government go even further than open work permits for all, and consider giving permanent residency to anyone who qualifies to come to Canada for a job.

“If you are good enough to work, you are good enough to stay," said Ms. Kwan, who pointed out many workers come and go, working at menial jobs for years, while trying in vain to get a foothold to stay.

“The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was brought in once upon a time for workers who were truly temporary and had no intention of staying in Canada," she said.

A parliamentary committee looking into human trafficking last year said it stopped short of recommending open work permits for all low-wage workers because it would be unfair to employers – who already have paid to bring them to Canada – to have to compete for their services.