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Being tied to one employer stops non-Canadians from speaking out against their company, one advocate says.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A national group of unions and migrant-worker advocates is calling on Justin Trudeau to protect Canada's temporary foreign workers by giving them permanent residency upon arrival and letting them ditch the employer who sponsors them.

Buoyed by the prime-minister-designate's previous promise to reform the Conservative federal government's "broken" system and give these "vulnerable" workers a clear path to citizenship, the Coalition for Migrant Worker Rights Canada urged these reforms Wednesday as a way to stop the exploitation of these "invisible and disposable" people, which it says will continue as long as their right to remain in the country depends on a good relationship with their employer.

The coalition joins a growing list of organizations demanding the upcoming Liberal government make these concerns a priority.

"If we have created jobs where the only way to keep people tied to them is by the foot then we need to rethink what kind of economy we have developed," said Syed Hussan, a Toronto-based spokesman for the umbrella group.

Mr. Hussan argued that foreign workers won't leave a job if they are being treated well and that giving them open permits would force an "improvement in wages and working conditions for migrant workers and all workers."

Raul Gatica, an organizer with B.C.'s temporary farm workers who is affiliated with the coalition, said he had witnessed firsthand how being tied to one employer stopped non-Canadians from speaking out against picking fruit in the Okanagan for 14 hours to 16 hours a day without a break or any overtime.

"With the Mexican workers, all the time [the bosses] were saying 'Hurry up, you're lazy, you need to finish [packing] more boxes,'" Mr. Gatica said Wednesday in Vancouver as he sat beside other advocates and representatives from some of B.C.'s three biggest unions.

By 2012, the number of temporary employees let into Canada had more than tripled over the previous decade to 491,547, according to one government measurement. Last year, the Conservative government essentially scrapped its temporary foreign worker program, created to fill reported shortages of low-paid workers in several industries, after controversial reports surfaced of companies using the program to displace Canadian employees.

Now, the program for most low-wage jobs is limited to regions with an unemployment rate higher than 6 per cent and employers using the program, estimated to number about 1,000 in 2013, must limit these temporary employees to 10 per cent of their work force.

Markham-Thornhill Liberal MP John McCallum said his party will examine the plight of temporary foreign workers once it formally takes power, but added he could not respond directly to the coalition's specific demands now because "we are unable to consult with the departments [of citizenship and immigration, as well as employment and social development]."

Mr. McCallum, a former federal revenue minister, said his party would prefer that these workers have a pathway to permanent residency. The Liberals applaud the approach of employers in the meatpacking industry that "had temporary foreign workers come in and then, within a number of years, some 70 to 75 per cent of them became permanent residents," he said.

He added that his party is still committed to the greater investigation and stricter enforcement of companies that abuse the temporary foreign worker program, noting his parliamentary motion asking for these powers was defeated in 2013 by a Conservative majority.

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