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Opinion We can no longer ignore the exploitation of migrant workers in Canada

Fay Faraday is a labour and human-rights lawyer and assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. She has provided assistance to migrant workers since 1990.

When it comes to migrant-worker exploitation, Canada lost its innocence years ago. The Globe and Mail’s investigation into labour trafficking shines a new light on how networks of extortion, fraud and wage theft prey on low-wage migrant workers in Canada.

The investigation documents recruiters and immigration consultants who earn millions by charging predatory illegal fees to workers with the promise of a job and sometimes permanent residence in Canada. On arrival, the workers discover the job was never real to begin with. The promise of permanent residence was also false. The workers, finding themselves in debt bondage, are forced to work with undocumented status, and are subject to extreme workplace exploitation under threat of deportation if they complain.

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Investigation: False promises: Foreign workers are falling prey to a sprawling web of labour trafficking in Canada

Also: Threats, crippling debt and lives lost: Human trafficking leaves foreign workers suffering in silence

None of this is new.

The exploitation of undocumented workers that The Globe’s investigation explores is virtually identical to the coercion and abuse that migrant workers routinely face when entering Canada under the legal channels of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, as I detailed in my 2014 report, Profiting from the Precarious.

It is consistent with observations made by Canada’s auditor-general and the House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration dating back to 2009.

It is consistent with evidence that migrant workers have given at countless consultations with federal government ministries going back more than a decade.

The line between labour trafficking and temporary labour migration is blurry. We must move beyond hand-wringing to accountability and action.

Examining this exploitation as the crime of “trafficking” comforts us by suggesting that these practices are aberrant; that we just need to remove the “bad apples." But this goes far beyond a few bad apples. The practices as outlined by The Globe’s investigation are a core business model that some recruiters adopt even while operating within legal migration channels.

The abuse is normalized because federal and provincial governments, through policy and legislative choices made and renewed over two decades, have constructed labour migration laws and policies that deliver a predictably exploitable work force to Canadian employers.

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Canada’s system largely excludes working-class individuals and families from permanent immigration. Workers are needed to fill jobs in Canada at all levels of the economy, but working-class migrants must come to Canada with precarious temporary status, without their families. That vulnerability is exacerbated by work permits that restrict migrants to working only for the specific employer listed on their permit. Their risk is further heightened because their employer often controls their housing. These workers truly are a captive labour force.

The precariousness which is created through Canadian law and policy enables recruiters and employers to exploit workers throughout their labour migration journey from initial recruitment, through abusive work practices and through the constant threat of their deportation.

If these experiences of exploitation are not the outcomes we want, we must demand that Canadian governments choose again and choose differently.

First, Canada’s immigration system should be reframed to prioritize permanent over temporary migration. Working-class workers should be able to immigrate to Canada with their families with permanent status on arrival so they can continue to contribute to our communities but do so with the security they currently lack.

Second, tied work permits must be eliminated. The United Nations has expressly recognized that “tying workers to specific employers encourages labour exploitation.” To the extent workers come to Canada with temporary status, they must have open work permits.

Third, rigorous and consistent regulation and licensing of recruiters and their supply chains is required in all provinces. Currently, recruiters exploit the patchwork of provincial laws, bringing workers into provinces with weak regulation and transporting them across provincial borders.

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Fourth, employers that hire migrant workers and postsecondary institutions that recruit international students must be held jointly liable with recruiters for all violations of those workers’ and students’ rights related to the recruitment process.

Finally, we must hold Canadian corporations accountable for destructive, extractive practices which devastate environments and communities around the globe, displacing people and forcing them into the cycle of labour migration, which for some brings them here where the cycle of exploitation at Canadian hands continues.

For the sake of these workers, we can no longer claim we are shocked. We must act in order to end the abuse.

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